Scripture's no video game

I'm thinking about the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6). The people marched around Jericho a bunch of times, then an earthquake shatters the wall and the city is conquered. If this were a video game, you'd say "Great. I love this level! I'll use the earthquake in every battle from now on."
The people are overconfident when they march against Ai in chapter 7. One might think that after Achan's sin is exposed and he confesses and is judged, the people can go back to marching around the enemy until the earthquake pulverises them. But that isn't what God does -- Ai is defeated by a battle plan that doesn't involve earthquakes or any other miracle. And the rest of the battles don't involve earthquakes. There is one more miracle in Joshua, the day the sun stands still, but the rest of the battles all involve hard combat without miracles. I think God wants us to understand how He is powerful enough to enable a miraculous victory at any moment, but he also wants us to understand he often chooses not to display that power.

I dislike happy endings -- a paradox

I like Christian fiction, but I dislike when writers give you a nice happy ending with all the character's problems solved. This is a paradox. For isn't the Gospel of Jesus Christ the mother of all happy endings?

But a real Gospel story would show the ending has not yet come. We are always in the middle of the story, still needing hope for what we do not yet see. We are blessed by God here and now, but the ultimate happy ending, happy beyond all we can ask or think, is yet to come.

Blog moving

I've moved my blog. It is now part of a larger website, I created this website as a web home for the book I've begun to publish.

The book is available in Kindle, Nook and other digital formats here:

Paperback version should be available soon.
New direct address to this blog:
The old address, should still work as well.

The Spirit, our drill sergeant?

Is this a familiar story? It feels like I'm remembering it from a classic war movie, but I'm not sure. Maybe from Sands of Iwo Jima.

Here's the story. A young man joins the army and arrives at basic training. It feels like months of hell, since the tough, demanding drill sergeant is on his case all day and all night; telling him to run faster, keep going, clean his rifle faster, try harder and never give up. He endures, telling himself that once basic training is over he hopes never to see this brutal taskmaster of a sergeant again. He finally makes it through training and goes into battle. In the reality of combat, he realizes the necessity of all the drill sergeant had insisted he learn. The sergeant wasn't overly demanding at all, he knew what skills soldiers really needed. Then finally the soldier meets his former drill sergeant and thanks him for being so tough on him in boot camp.

Is the Holy Spirit is like this drill sergeant? He knows we have far to grow in Christlikeness and that we won't be thoroughly happy anywhere short of Christlikeness. He doesn't shout at and insult us, like a stereotypical drill sergeant. But there is a lot we have to learn and he faithfully keeps at us to not stop learning. One day, we'll appreciate all we have learned. Maybe we already appreciate things we have learned, even though learning them was far from present at the time. Hebrews 12 reminds us that God disciplines those he loves, let us be properly appreciative of God's discipline.

Some spiritual lessons

Some spiritual lessons from recent years:

  • When it looks like God hasn't kept a promise, go to him and ask for wisdom and help. Messy circumstances that suggest that the promise isn't really true may be the arena where God wants to demonstrate again how true the promise is. 
  • Lay my raw emotions before God in prayer. There is no point in pretending I'm not feeling what I'm feeling. There isn't much point in thinking I can stop feeling something just by deciding that it is wrong or inappropriate to feel that way. A negative emotion laid before God in prayer loses much of its power to perturb God's peace in my heart.
  •  Life may not have given me what I most wanted, but do I really have something to complain about? If I can't be content with what I have, can I be content with what I want? 
  • Change is normal. Don't think of the current change I don't like as something I can get past and never be bothered with again. 
  • Don't judge the wisdom, integrity or competence of others just by whether they make my life harder. Many times life needs to be complicated. 
  •  The purpose of life isn't to make us happy but to make us holy. (Adapted from Gary Thomas' book about marriage).

God's wonderful plan

"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" Simplistic, or true? True, if we understand that the wonderful plan is not to get the things we want, or to be free from trouble, but to grow in character. Jeremiah 29:11 is a well known promise: "I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." The context is God telling the people not to listen to the false prophets predicting pleasant circumstances. God's plan to prosper his people at that point involve going to Babylon for 70 years of exile. This will be good, not evil, because God will be with them in exile, and they will learn to walk more closely with him. "Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you." So let us not assume God is not with us when life is difficult.

More than we can ask or think

This line comes from one of my wife's favorite verses.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, Ephesians 3:20
This verse has bugged me at times, because while God is able to do far more than I ask or think, I've felt like he frequently does much less than I ask for. I've come to understand that while his power can instantly resolve any problem, his wisdom usually opts for demonstrating I can trust him even as the problem persists.

An earlier post about wisdom and power.

What about my dream?

O Lord, you know my dream. You know how much it is a part of me. And yet I have no guarantee it will come true. What shall I do? I must admit I don't deserve to have this dream come true. I cannot be sure that having it come true will make me a better person or will bring your kingdom closer. But it is a part of me, and you do not condemn me for it, for you are gracious and merciful to the longings of my heart. You may well want to give me this dream that I know anew your goodness. Yet you may well want to show me your goodness and your ability to encourage me without fulfilling my dream. Do what you will. Lord, help me trust you with this dream. Help me to remember whether you choose to make it come true or not, you are ever with me. When your kingdom comes in all its fullness, that will be the best possible fulfillment of all our dreams, the ones that really matter.

Honesty of a worship leader

I just read a blog post by a worship leader that challenges my self-righteousness. I think of myself as a "mature ordinary Christian" who would never say any of those foolish things that worship leaders sometimes say. My least favorite thing, when the worship leader says "Good morning", then judges our response too feeble and says "Let's try that again." As if the problem of apathy of heart goes away as soon as we say "Good morning" or "Amen" adequately loud. His closing statement of what worship ought to be and how it just is not natural for any of us without God's grace is a good one:
At the end of the day, regardless of what side of the microphone we're on, we're all suffering from varying degrees of misdirection, and in desperate need of re-direction. We all come to church on Sunday faced with the dilemma of who we've been worshiping and whose kingdom we've been building all week. It's that humble truth that causes me to once again remember what I'm called to do this morning: magnify the name of Christ, confess our desperate need for him, and sing the truths of the gospel with people who are far too consumed with themselves. Like me.

All I've done is feed the fish

This morning, I stumbled across a blog in Portuguese, which Google translated for me, and I found it inspiring. The 21st century does have its good points. What Google and I think he's saying: Come fish with me in my lake. The lake isn't mine, God gave it to me. The fish aren't mine, God gave me them, too. All I've done is feed the fish. This reminds me of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians.
For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
All we have, whether it is our "natural" gifts, talents and skills, things we've had to labor to attain or perfect, or things we just "lucked" into, are gifts from God. They aren't inalienably mine. All I've done is receive them. Like Senhor Campo says, all I've done is feed the fish. The original: The translated version:

Lamenting in hope

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about Lamentations.
What was the secret that kept Jeremiah believing, when all around him was destroyed?
He kept his hope in the Lord, despite the destruction and conquest of all he knew.

I see a key idea in verses 19-23, his great statement of hope.
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope.
Because of the Lord's great love
we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:19-23

Jeremiah doesn't pretend that he's not upset about what has happened. He lays his pain out before God. I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall The book is indeed a lament, mourning the disaster that has come. But he reminds himself of God's great love and compassion.

What I take as a principle: Lament in hope.
Lament: don't pretend all is well, don't hide your emotions
in Hope: as you pour your heart out to God, trust that he is still with you no matter how bad it feels.

Have I learned to do this myself? Not yet, I still struggle.

Real Wisdom

Wisdom does not mean being so smart you won't be surprised by life. No one is that smart.

Wisdom means knowing who God is and knowing who you are, so that when the unexpected comes, you know how to cope.

This was inspired by a post by Paul Tripp, Prepared Spontaneity (Mon Aug 22nd).

I also like this quote from his "About Me" text.
We believe it is not enough to believe in life after death, we believe in real hope of life before death. We believe in real hope of personal growth and change. We believe in real hope of community and institutional change. Why? Because we believe in the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

A unique wedding vow

Back when we got married our pastor told us he worried when couples wanted to write their own vows. In his experience, custom vows were often overly long and overly idealistic.

But in this wedding last month, the custom vow wasn't too long and certainly not overly idealistic. The bride told the groom that she recognized that only God could love her as perfectly as she wanted to be loved, so she released him from that false expectation that he can and ought to satisfy her every need.

I like that laying aside of unrealistic expectations. It was actually quite realistic about marriage, that it is a hard thing we need God's help for to do really well.

Anger and righteousness

"Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires." James 1:20

If we believed this, a lot of political discourse might change.

Do I believe this? Do I talk about others as worthless, obtuse, and foolish beyond measure when I disagree with them?

Do I discount people who agree with me yet aren't strident enough in criticizing those who don't agree?

Cheap or costly unity

There is a fast, cheap way to attain unity in an organization. Just get the minority to keep quiet (or fire them). Change in an organization can be complicated by a minority who question the change, who ask the same hard questions several times and are not easily reassured that the details will eventually be worked out to their satisfaction. Costly unity is when both the majority and the minority take the time to explain their perspectives and concerns, and to listen to one another. Any plan or proposal can benefit from being analyzed and critiqued not just by its supporters but its opponents.

Airplane ailerons are an example of this. The Wright brothers really deserve their reputation as aviation pioneers. They were not just the lucky ones who got an airplane off the ground first or had the best publicity. Their success came because they did systematic aeronautical research, doing detailed wind tunnel testing and advancing the systematic data collection that Otto Lilienthal had started (in the process discovering and correcting a significant error in Lilienthal's data). The Wrights realized a key to flight was being able to control the bank of the airplane. But their method of doing this wasn't the best (as we can see in hindsight). Their idea was to make the plane bank by warping the wing. But aircraft designers soon realized that it made better sense to have the wing stay unwarped, and have a small part of the wing able to pivot to control bank. It is hard to imagine metal airplanes the size of a 747 (or even a DC3) ever being built if the whole wing had to warp.

But ailerons were controversial in the early years of aviation. There are echoes of this in the wikipedia page on the history of the aileron . It is hard to say who first invented them and the Wright Brothers didn't like the idea. What if aviation pioneers had pleaded with each other for unity? "Let's unite around the Wright Flyer, it works the best. Wilbur and Orville have done the most research. Let's trust them". If the aileron proponents had been convinced, we might never have gotten past aircraft made of wood covered with silk. What other material can allow for the whole wing to warp? But aileron proponents did not keep silent, others realized that was the better way to control bank, and today we have 747s. Sometimes the majority can learn from the minority. Who of us can claim the full wisdom of God? Wouldn't God be most likely to distribute different aspects of his wisdom to different people? The Wright Brothers had a pretty good airplane, but the aileron idea made better airplanes.

The hard part is when you're a minority, wondering how much noise to make. Is your concern selfish, because you're putting your circumstances or your job ahead of everything else in the organization? Or are you seeing something that others aren't seeing?

The hard part when you're in the majority, recognizing that someone who keeps bringing up the same concern might have a point, they might not be refusing to go along or blocking progress for selfish reasons. Maybe your plan or policy has a tweak needed, and listening to the minority can show it to you.

So let us take the time and effort to attain costly unity.

An earlier post on unity: Dwelling in Unity

Made to Stick

Model 1: A traveling businessman is offered a drink by an attractive woman. He takes it, and the next thing he knows he is lying in his hotel bathtub with ice around his body. He calls 9/11 and they tell him he's the victim of organ thieves – his kidneys have been stolen.

Model 2: "Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modeled, drawing on existing practice."

If you read these two, which one will you remember an hour from now? The organ thief story (which is an urban legend by the way). Why? Because it is a story, simple, concrete and evokes emotion.

.Yet the second is the way many organizations write about what they do. Why? Because it sounds more professional? Because its easier? (You don't have to stop and think about what exactly you mean, and how you would express it to someone who doesn't know your organization).

Another example: if John F. Kennedy were a CEO he might have said: "Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategic aerospace initiatives." Instead (because he knew something about how to communicate), he said our goal would be to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade.

It's a challenge to write things that really say something, that are simple and concrete. But its worth doing. The easy "semantic autopilot" way of saying things the way you've always said them does not really communicate.

My source for this: Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

The surprising compassion of Anne Frank

Anne Frank is best remembered for her diary. The diary is well written and a compelling story of surviving while hidden away. But more memorable than that, in my opinion is something else she wrote, a short story (perhaps a novella) called Cady's Life.

Cady is a Dutch Christian girl who has a Jewish friend Mary. Cady worries about her friend as news comes of the Nazi's deporting Jews. She goes to encourage her friend one night and discovers an empty, sealed apartment. A Gestapo man threatens her with a pistol, she shows her identity card to prove she isn't Jewish, and he shoves her to the ground but lets her leave. Back home she feels guilt. "Why did Mary have to go away when she, Cady, could stay here? Why did Mary have to suffer her horrible fate when she was left to enjoy herself."

It's mind-blowing to me how this teenager, fearing for her life, can yet imagine the situation of friends who aren't Jewish, and how they would feel survivor's guilt. Maybe the story was partly wish fulfillment -- Anne perhaps wishing she weren't Jewish so she wouldn't be killed. But if it was really wish fulfillment, it would have been a story about schoolgirl adventures, such as looking forward to her prom (or whatever the equivalent was in 1940s Holland). What astounds me is how she, in danger of death herself, can imagine the life of someone who wasn't Jewish. One could also imagine she might feel bitterness or scorn towards Gentiles who weren't doing anything to help the Jews, but she does not.

It is axiomatic that a writer tells his or her own story. What astounds me in this story is Anne Frank telling in a convincing manner someone else's story.

Thanking God for both arms

I watched Soul Surfer last night, so I'm thankful today to have two arms.

My favorite part of the story was when Bethany has tried to surf competitively again and failed, then goes to Thailand on a mission trip to help survivors of the 2005 tsunami, and helps a little boy (then the whole village) not to be afraid of the water. I liked the idea of Bethany learning compassion and finding people with greater difficulties than her.

I was convinced as I watched that I was seeing the real Bethany Hamilton portraying herself. The stump looked totally convincing. Then at the end they showed video of the real Bethany Hamilton. Apparently the actress, AnnaSophia Robb, wore a green sleeve on her left arm and they digitally removed that from all the images. An astounding work of special effects. After some searching, I found a pic of her with the green sleeve.

Looking at pictures of the real Bethany and her real parents online, they look like fairly average people. I'm wondering why no one makes a movie about average characters with average looking people to portray them.

Amazing faith

In Luke 7:1-10, Jesus was amazed at the centurion's faith. What was amazing about it? He was willing to believe Jesus could heal, even if Jesus didn't follow the standard narrative (go to the sick person, lay hands, say 'your faith has made you whole').

So let us remember that though God is with us, we cannot predict how he will come through for us. Let us, like the centurion, give God freedom not to follow our script. (Since he likely won't anyway, we'll save ourselves some confusion and disappointment).

Luke 7:1-10

New perspective on a troubling verse

Some verses are troubling when God seems harsher than we would like him to be.
But sometimes I'm troubled by the verses that seem to promise more good than I experience. I'm prone to wonder "can this indeed be true?"

This is one of those: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here!" 2 Cor 5:17

If Christians really are new creations, why are there ugly church splits, bad arguments between fellow Christians, and superficial politeness labeled as close fellowship?

Here's the new perspective I'm coming to. Paul describes the new creation as having come because he's adopting God's eternal perspective. God sees now what he will make of our character when we are in unbroken communion with him and seeing him as he is. We don't see that now, we are still very much in progress, as long as this life lasts. He sees the end now, and views it as a done deal, even though we have a lot of "heres and nows" to get through before that comes.

Paul's detailed exhortations in all his epistles shows that he knows being Christlike in real life is not easy for us. He knows we don't attain godliness just closing our eyes and singing one more chorus of "Kum Ba Yah" or "Awesome God", or going to that one special conference where we finally "get it."

Remembering John Stott

Noted author and preacher John Stott died this week. A sentence in his obituary in the British newspaper Guardian caught my eye.
He insisted that Christians should engage in "double listening" – to the word of God, and to the world around them – and apply their biblical faith to all the pressing issues of contemporary culture.

This resonates with me -- I think we should be scrutinizing the details of what God has promised, we should also scrutinize the details of our circumstances, and seeking God's grace and wisdom for where the two are not consistent.

Wisdom or power?

Ephesians 3:10 says God wants to use the church to display his wisdom.

When I pray for a need, I'm usually hoping God will display his power. Lord, cure this disease, work a miracle, fix it right now! I'm ready to celebrate an instantaneous delivery!

But what if God wants to display his wisdom? What if God wants to show how he can outsmart his enemies, not blast them out of his way? What if he wants to show that walking with him is the best way, even when it doesn't bring immediate ease and prosperity? What if he wants to show how the long hard slog towards the heavenly country, even when we don't see it, is the best way to live?

How to repent of a bad emotion?

Life happens, and you realize you're not reacting well. You're upset when you shouldn't be, or frustrated over nothing (or what should be nothing).

What do you do?

I suspect it is not enough to say to yourself "I shouldn't feel this way, so I won't." It is good to perceive you shouldn't feel this way, but emotions don't turn off just because you decide to stop feeling them. I think the way to proceed is to say to God, "I shouldn't feel this way, but I do. Help me." This expresses our reliance upon God, rather than assuming we can independently control our feelings.

Dwelling in unity

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! Psalm 133:1

How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters care about each other, not just about getting the job done or about doing what the boss wants.

How good and pleasant it is when you can express your concern that someone is being treated unfairly, and you are heard, even if you don't have all the right words to express it.

Unity is not when people agree on every detail -- that probably rarely happens. Unity is when colleagues trust each other enough to express what they really feel, and trust each other enough to listen to how the other feels, without being disappointed or threatened.

Do you remember the first time you read Scripture aloud?

We're in Uganda right now, helping some new Bible translators learn how to translate into their languages. Last weekend, each team visited some other speakers of their language with their draft of the Good Samaritan story.

One man read the passage aloud, as someone in our group recorded him. He asked to have a copy of the recording for his computer. He said it was the first time he's ever read Scripture aloud in his own language, and he wants to be able to share that moment with his children.

Fenelon on God's grace

God performs everything in us, but does it with and through us. It is his grace when I do what I should and do not what I should not; when I endure difficulties, resist temptation, believe and hope in God’s presence even when I don’t feel it. He invites my cooperation, he does not regularly transform me or my circumstances until I ask for it, until I lay my heart open before him and admit my present weakness and awkwardness.

A paraphrase from Francois Fénélon. (to find the passage I'm paraphrasing, do a search for "grace" on that page.

A prayer of thanks

Oh Lord, remembering you makes such a difference.

It hurt when my friend mocked my secret weakness.
Did he know, how dare he?

When I remembered to give you this care,
You took it, and soothed the pain,
Now I can offer peace to others,
Not demand that I be soothed.

A good poem

Tim is a colleague that I've friended on Facebook, but may never have actually met. He wrote a poem which struck me this morning:
Be still, my soul.
Let my self with its need for attention, distraction and connectedness
Melt into the background
Like hard wax becoming molten in the presence of your flame.
Be still, my soul,
Relax the hand that grasps
Into an open hand
From which my empty trinkets can be taken
And into which blessings dropped easily.

Read Tim's whole poem.

The second line grabs me. How I long for attention and distraction. Surely the love of God should fill up my need to be noticed. But it doesn't. I want attention now.

And when God loves me so, why am I so eager for distraction, to escape and kill time?. Why do I not appreciate the gift of this life God has given me?

Lord, open my eyes again to see the length and height and breadth of your love for me.

Job's faith

I've marveled at Job's faith in Chapter 19, when in the midst of his pain he suddenly confesses hope: "I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God." (Job 19:25-26)

I've just noticed he had a similar moment of hope in chapter 16:
"Even now my witness is in heaven;
my advocate is on high.
My intercessor is my friend
as my eyes pour out tears to God;
on behalf of a man he pleads with God
as one pleads for a friend." Job 16:19-21.

Job sees even in his suffering that God is more than the righteous judge, but also the one who takes our side, who seeks to be merciful. We can have faith in life's perplexing moments that God, our advocate and intercessor pleads for us.

Emmanuel road

The heart of God's promises: He is with us.

His promises are as real as our circumstances. 
It should not be scandalous or awkward to admit we aren't who we should be. He has qualified the unqualified before. It's actually one of his specialties.
So let us walk the road of trusting his promises more than we trust our own capabilities.

Is not this the lesson that our Father Abraham would teach us? He was called to leave the place he knew to travel to a place God would show him. God promised to bless him, and to bless all nations through him. Do we remember Abraham today because of what he did, or because of God's promise?

God is with us, let us be with Him.

A song for the Emmanuel road:
"As surely as the sun will rise, you'll come to us, certain as the dawn appears."

Esther, a tragedy?

I'm reading through Esther these days, and I'm reminded of what I'd thought a few years back, that there is quite likely sadness inside her story, or rather the rest of her story. We romanticize the story, the beauty pageant winner who comes away with the grand prize of queenship. And then the drama of Haman's plot and her counterplot to save the Jews from death.

But what was the rest of her life like? How satisfying was her marriage? The social system enabled her husband to indulge any whim he ever had for all the other attractive women surrounding him. Any time she failed to fascinate, he could restage another pageant and enthrone a new charming faced winner. What kind of marriage was it really when she still faced death any time she wanted to come to him and he didn't want to talk? Twenty, thirty years later, did she view her marriage as a Cinderella romance, or as being trapped in a gilded cage?

Did she have children? None are recorded. If she had, the system surely forbade her to have much of a role raising them. They certainly weren't given a Jewish upbringing. A daughter, raised to be another harem beauty? A son, raised to enjoy harem beauties?

What was her life like when she was sixty? Queen Mother, ritually honored but effectively ignored? Could she still manage to believe she was born for such a time as that? By God's grace she could have, she could well have been sustained by the astonishing goodness of peace and joy despite circumstances. But it would not have been easy.

But perhaps in outward loneliness, she learned and experienced the great truth that God is with us, and comforts us in any affliction. Maybe in heaven she was rewarded for more than saving the people from Haman.

Gospel core values

What is the core of the Gospel? That God shows mercy on unworthy people, forgives them, adopts them as his own and makes them his people.

So what should I believe about this personally?
  • I can believe that by God's grace I have been chosen, imperfect as I am, to a significant role in God's Kingdom. He has chosen me, knowing my imperfections and takes upon himself the task of qualifying me for this. I will pursue this calling in relationship to God, opening my heart and laying bare my soul with its imperfections to him, because he knows about them already, and has chosen me anyway. I have seen that his grace in my life is bigger than my shortcomings. I can lay my longings and frustrations, both good or evil, before him, and experience his peace, even when in my life the good longings are not yet met and the evil longings have not yet gone away. I will continue in this faith I have learned, to walk in emotional honesty with God and trust his peace in my difficulties. The peace of pleasant circumstances is good when it happens but cannot be relied upon.

  • This same grace and calling I rejoice in is also given to my brothers and sisters. So I will not disbelieve in their calling when I perceive them as imperfect, but seek to understand their hearts, consider that I as well as they might be imperfect in the issue at hand, and pray for them that God helps them in their weaknesses.

The law of sequels: two exceptions

Everyone says that sequels are never as good as the original. I agree that the generalization holds up pretty well. Two exceptions do come to mind.

1) The Lord of the Rings books. These were written as a sequel to the Hobbit. And they are better. The Hobbit is good, but the LOTR books are better.

2) The New Testament. Perhaps strictly speaking we shouldn't call it a sequel, since both the Old and New Testaments are actually anthologies of various books. But there is a sequel-like effect in the books that describe Jesus Christ and the New Covenant, a retelling and recasting of the story of God and his chosen people, Abraham and his descendants.

As a sequel, it attains something quite remarkable. In one sense it is a better story, but it also renews my curiosity to go back and read the original story as well.

Prayer for policy makers

Breathe your life, O brooding enlivening Spirit, into the dry bones of legal requirements and lists of procedures. Use their work to make our places alive, with the gleamingly fresh green of new buds sprouting joy and hope. But not all life comes from policy. Give them wisdom to know what problems their work cannot solve.

Honoring God

I've heard more than once the ideal that we should "Honor God in all we do or say." I suspect this has become a cliché. When I hear it, I wonder how much it really encourages us to be aware of God's love and truth, or if it is just a platitude we say knowing no one can argue with it.

I also wonder if it isn't a dangerous oversimplification. What comes to mind when I hear it is an idea that isn't Scriptural. It gives me the image of God defining a standard of behavior for us, then expecting us to keep the standard. But that isn't the Gospel. The Gospel says God knows we cannot live up to his standard, but he has provided a solution for us in Jesus Christ.

I would say a better statement would be "In all areas of life, honor God for what He has said and done. We honor God by believing Him when He tells us we fall short of His standards, and believing Him when He freely offers mercy and help to us in our shortcomings. Committing ourselves to admitting where we fall short and seeking God's help to best approach His standards in all areas of our lives."

What is new about the New Covenant?

The first two thoughts that come to my mind are these:

1) Jesus died once for all for sins, there is no longer a need for an atoning sacrifice every year.
2) The new covenant is also open to Gentiles, not just the nation of Israel.

But I think there has to be more. When Jeremiah writes about the new covenant (Jer 31:31-34) he says it will be different than the old one. What was wrong with the old one? The people didn't keep it. "They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them (v 32)"

So God says he will make a new covenant. He will put his law in our minds and write it on our hearts. He will make us into people that will keep his covenant.

God could have written off the people that didn't keep the first covenant. "Its not my fault," he could say. "Didn't I say 'do this and you will live?'"

But God didn't write off his people, he rewrites the covenant.
(When he opened the new covenant to Gentiles as well as Jews, he didn't write off the Jews. The New Testament talks about Gentiles being included with Israel, it doesn't talk about Gentiles replacing Israel).

Grace, law and change

At the Gospel Coalition blogs, (well worth looking at), there was a post last week about the Gospel, the Law and (I think) how to change.

The writer Tullian Tchividian said some things that resonate with me. Here are a couple:
Long-term, sustained obedience can only come from the grace which flows from what Jesus has already done, not guilt or fear of what we must do.

Don't American [Christians] need to be shaken out of their comfort zones? Yes—but you don’t do it by giving them law; you do it, as Dane points out, by giving them gospel.

Brother Tullian says that the law, the standard of God's behavior, is important for Christians. We must not think though, that it gives us the power to do what it requires.

But what do I do when I see in my life things that don't match God's standard? Do I make rules for myself to change? No, I think that would be thinking the standard itself has the power to change me, or that I, myself, have the power to change. I need to seek God to change.

I think this comes back to my Faith and Circumstances theme. God has made many promises, including the ones that I will be changed. I can look at my life and circumstances, and conclude the promises can't be true. Or I can look at my circumstances, including the changes I still haven't made, and say "God, prove yourself in me, here and now. I need You."

Maybe change is supposed to be hard

You can't read Paul's letters for very long without discovering that God intends to change our natures. Paul says anyone in Christ is a new creation, (2 Cor 5:17), and that we died to sin in Christ (Romans 6:2-6), and that we have been crucified with him (Gal 2:20).

These verses have always made me think that for a Christian, overcoming a bad habit or a recurring attitude should be fairly effortless. All we need to do is have faith and ask God to change us, right? In fact, the change should already have taken place.

But I've never found change in my life to be effortless, like these verses imply. I've figured out in recent years that Scripture has another paradigm besides the total and instant transformation. The story of God's people coming into the Promised Land is a surprisingly complicated one. There are miracles (crossing the Red Sea, conquering Jericho) that feed the instantaneous, effortless paradigm. But there are also a lot of enemies, that have to be conquered one by one, and in not all cases is the victory supernatural and instantaneous. The biggest delay, the 40 years in the wilderness, comes because the people lose faith at a critical moment, but I'm not sure the story should be read that if the people had only had faith, all would have been effortless. What if God intended the process to be somewhat drawn out, because he wanted to give the people the experience of having faith in the promise, even when circumstances suggested that the promise couldn't be true? Faith is the assurance of things not seen, Hebrews tells us. That means something has to remain unseen for faith to take place.

Two phases of selfishness

I think selfishness has two phases. Phase 1 is when I want other people to get out of my way. Why do I have to wait for traffic, wait at the light, wait at the checkout line? Who do these people think they are? Slowing ME down!

Phase 2 is when I want to be noticed and applauded. I've gotten some good feedback about this blog, but I could take more. Sometimes at a party I can grumble inwardly that I'm not the center of attention. Who do these people think they are? Not noticing ME!

I'm an introvert, so the first phase predominates for me. But the second phase comes in as well.

God's antidote to the first phase: remembering that he loves others as much as he loves me, realizing this world is not for my benefit alone.

God's antidote to the second: Remembering that my story, my concerns are deeply engraved on his heart. I am his adopted child, Jesus is not ashamed to call me 'brother'.

A great prayer for New Years

     All year long you’ll prove your covenant and capacity to keep us from falling. Though we may falter in the journey, the grasp of your grace is steady and secure. When we waver in our adoration of you, you will remain constant in your affection for us. When we are faithless and disobedient, you will remain committed and fully engaged with us. Even when you must discipline us this year, it will be in love, never in disgust or regret that you have adopted us (Heb.12:7-12). We praise you for being the perfect Father to your daughters and sons.

     All year long you’ll be at work preparing us for the day when we come into your glorious presence. We’re confident and grateful as we face that day, because you have promised to complete the good work of the gospel you’ve begun in us (Phil. 1:6). Indeed, Father, if this should be the year in which you call me “home,” herein lays my humble confidence: I will stand before you without fault because you’ve placed me in the faultless righteous One, Jesus.

source: Scotty Smith's prayer

I like this. The habit of New Years resolutions can convey that we depend on our own willpower to change. Let us focus on the One who can bring change.