The Glory of Prepositions

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God abides in us to perfect His purposes through us. This is an interesting and a comforting thought. This God of love lives in us, stays with us, and flows through us to accomplish His desires. But we are not passive partners in this process. We have our own role to play. And this role is primarily practiced through the act of obedience.

But, if you’re like me, obedience can sometimes be a slippery thing. For years I used to flounder in frustration when reading verses like Proverbs 3:5 (Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding) or 1 Cor. 10:31 (Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God). These types of verses seemed to excel in telling me what to do but appeared to fail in explaining how. It felt as if God had wedged me between my desire to do the right thing and my ignorance of the process.

But God had done no such thing at all. In fact, when I looked at these types of verses more clearly, I realized that in every instance God had provided a hidden instruction so that my obedience could be carried out as He intended. The answer, though, came in those small connecting words we often overlook in scripture. Tiny words that race past our eyes and hide within the shadows of metaphors and expansive revelations. These are the words we imagine revolve around the center of a sentence’s solar system, while in reality, they are the stars whose gravity holds all of the other words together and maps the circuit of the ideas within.

What are they?

They are the prepositions. Words like “in” and “with” and “for.” And without them, no Christian can ever obey God.

Consider the following:

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” – Php. 4:13

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” – Eph. 2:10

or

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me…apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:4-5

Obedience can never be done without the prepositions. In fact, it is the prepositions that empower the obedience. If we are honest, we know we cannot do what God commands us to do in our abilities alone. But when we embrace the belief that it is Christ working in and through us, we can boldly step out and proclaim, “With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.” (Ps. 108:13) This gives a whole new dimension to prayer and obedience. For once we have completed the process of following and have synced our heart and mind up to God’s so that we know His will, He command to go and do changes our requests from scavenger hunts to discover His will into requests to perform His will. We can step out in power and in confidence because it is He who is doing the work, not ourselves. Like an arrow shot from the archer’s bow, we do not set the aim or the trajectory or the target. Our objective is to only fly straight and true, piercing the bullseye according to His will.

Thus, obedience in Christ is not only praying in the name of Christ but it is also acting in the will and the power of Christ. The man who forfeits the opportunity to obey the calling of God because he is unable to accomplish the vision in his own strength is both missing and understanding the point all at the same time. He is so close to the adventure of God he teeters on the edge of understanding and faith, but he is so focused on himself that the distance between his usefulness and impotence in Christ has become immeasurable. If he would accept that God only wants him to be remembered as a useful tool and not a glorious building, then he would be able to yield himself to work in the strength and will of the Carpenter’s hand. But the one who does not empty himself of grandiose visions of glory or depressive visions of failure can only experience God’s desires for his life as an observer, not as a participant. His heart is focused too much on what he believes he can do in himself.

But God does not want us to obey within the the limitations of our abilities. He wants us to obey within the infinite realms that His prepositions provide “so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” (1 Peter 4:2) For since we have been crucified with Christ, the only thing that should remain in the obedient servant is a willingness to be used and a hopeful expectation to see God do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph. 3:2).

Remember, when God calls us to obedience, He calls us to future action. Sometimes that action is milliseconds in the future (will you defend your faith or deny that you know me?) and sometimes it is months or years in the future (lead my people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land). Either way, our faith must rest in God’s future grace in order to propel our obedience. Too many times we want to focus on the now because that is the one aspect on life’s timeline we can control. But God is a god of tomorrow as much as He is a god of today. Our faith need not be in what we can control now but in what God is controlling next, whether it be seconds or eons to come. If we cannot trust that God is there (in the future) as well as here (in the present) we cannot believe the calling and vision He has placed on our lives will be fulfilled. Everything will be left up to random chance. But a God who lives in the future is a god who calls us forward.

He is a god who secures the outcome in the power of His might. He is a creating god, ensuring the chaos of today is ordered into the fulfilled promises of tomorrow. A god of the future is a trustworthy god. An unsurprised god. A victorious god. And an unchanging god. He has no need for variance because as a god of the future, He has no need to react.  He is always out in front of us, creating, planning, coordinating, and inviting exactly the right person(s) to accomplish His purposes, of which we are a part. As an elected member of this future god’s tribe, our job is not to worry about today (for He has planned this day and its events from long ago) nor is it to ask about the what-ifs of tomorrow (for He has already arranged those outcomes as well). Our job is to boldly follow this god into the future He has designed and to exchange our anxiety for security. When we work in Him and with Him and for Him we no longer need to question what will happen. We only need to seek the when.

In this way our obedience demonstrates that “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Heb. 10:39) For we know that whether our obedience leads to another event that fulfills God’s plans or a death that glorifies His name, we will always be stepping into the future with God.

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Reflections on Psalm 145

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The one who extols and blesses and praises God’s name continuously is the one who maintains a high view of the holy standard God exemplifies in both His words and His actions. This helps a person remember that there is a standard above himself, an unflinching and unbreakable law that calls one to a higher code of conduct than anything we could imagine. Keeping God’s holiness constantly in view helps us remember that we are not the first cause to our morality, nor are we the end of the argument (i.e., the last person to whom we are accountable) for our choices. There is someone superior to us who holds us to a higher standard than we have ever held ourselves. Praise reinforces this knowledge and provides the kernel of submission we require to live a life rooted in the stability of this truth. To be a person full of integrity, whose actions and words align.

The continuous practice of praise allows us to conform our lives to God’s will and provides security even in the darkest times of life, for the truth of God does not change. His words and deeds are continuously consistent (He does not change like shifting shadows). Therefore, in verse 18 this is why it says, “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” God is not nearby, like a player waiting to be called off the bench to enter the game.

God is near.

He is personal.

His words are hidden in our heart so that we might not sin against him. Those words define us. They construct our habits and thoughts. They provide a path of righteousness to walk in for His name’s sake. And when our actions and deeds match the holy standard of His actions and deeds it gives our prayers gravitas because this alignment is what it means to “call on Him in truth.” It is speaking out of an integrity and a righteousness that He has designed in us, based out of His perfect character, not out of an identity that our broken pathologies have defined. When we see God as superior and continually exalt and extol His name above all other names (especially our own), we then understand our position in relation to Him. We can respect and revere and love Him as we ought. And as a result, God fulfills the desire of those who fear Him and preserves those who love Him (v. 19-20). Not so that we may benefit materially, but so that our lives may proclaim the goodness of His name and be an eternal echo of that old hymn that says:

Oh, come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,

And give Him the glory; great things He hath done.

Why Pray?

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Why do you pray?

Me

Because I have a problem and I either don’t know what to do

or need help with the solution.

 God

In other words, you require supernatural intervention, either in word or in deed?

Me

Yeah. I guess that sounds about right.

God

And what would you do if I immediately gave you the answer

or performed the miracle upon request?

 Me

What would I do?! I’d be happy! I’d praise you!

I’d tell everyone about what you did for me!

God

And after that?

Me

After what?

God

After the adrenaline and the joy wore off? What would you do then?

How would you be on Thursday of next week if your boss came in

and laid you off from your job?

Me

Wait! I’m losing my job next week?!

God

No. No. No. Hypothetically. What would you do?

Me

I guess I’d pray again.

(You promise I’m not losing my job?)

 God

Why?

Me

Because I need a job! I need to eat, pay off debt, have a place to live,

provide for my family, etc.

 God

Have I not been providing for you this whole time?

Have you ever gone without?

 Me

No.

God

Then why are you worried?

Me

Because I need money to survive in this world.

(Come on, God, don’t be coy with me. Am I really getting laid off?)

 God

My dear child, is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

Me

Philosophically? Sure…I guess. But practically I’ve got to pay my bills, God.

My family has to eat.

God sighs heavily

Me

What?

God

Do you not know that the silver is mine and the gold is mine?

That the earth and all it contains belongs to me? Have you

not heard that if you honor me, I will shower you with so

much blessing you will not be able to handle it all?

 Me

Well….yeah.

God

My child, I AM the most practical answer to all of your concerns.

But if I am only a piece of philosophy to calm your anxious soul or

a rational argument that provides order for your worldview, then

what are we doing here?

 Me

What do you mean?

God

I mean, why are we talking?

Me

Because, God, You know all things! You can do all things!

God

But what good does any of my wisdom or help do for you if you value your personal security above your relationship with me? I do not want to be another method that you use to increase your happiness. I want to be the end that you are pursuing, not another means by which you seek yourself.

God places His hand on my shoulder and looks me in the eye.

God

Do you understand?

Me (sheepishly)

I’m trying, Lord.

God

Prayer is not about receiving more of what you want.

It never has been that way and it never will be.

Me

 You mean, it’s not about the answers, the healings, or the money?

God

No.

Me

 Then why pray?

God

Because every answer I grant your prayers, whether a “yes” or a “no,” is not done to make your life easier. It’s done to give you a newer, brighter, and cleaner revelation of who I am. I do not act on your behalf for any other reason than to help you receive the one thing that will never wear out or fade in value.

Me

And what would that be?

God

Me. Prayer is about receiving ALL of me.

Me

 Oh, God, I don’t know that I can do this on my own. Teach me how to pray.

God

Just start with the words “Our Father” and filter everything else, both your petition and my answer, through these two simple words. Everything else will flow from there.

Quick Thoughts: The Problem with -ed

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It happens to the best of us. At some point, we recognize the need for self-improvement. We make a plan, buy the clothes or equipment needed, and gin up as much passion and enthusiasm as we can muster.

At first, everything is fine. And the results, though small, are churning out baby endorphins for our brain’s enjoyment. But then one day when the alarm goes off, we take a deep breath, stretch, and sigh heavily.

“How much longer do I have to do this,” we wonder. Continue reading

Praying Psalm 95

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Below is a prayer that follows Psalm 95 verse by verse.

God, when you invite me to “Come” you order an injunction against my passivity and procrastination. You call me out of my excuses and you call me into the raucous, stadium-rocking joy that celebrates you as the solid foundation of our salvation. Forgive me, Lord. For I have not celebrated you as I ought. I have not treasured the intransigent nature of your character nor the insoluble gift of salvation that flows out of your person as I ought. I have pursued small pleasures instead, trading permanence for things that can rust or wither or die.

Give me a heart, O God, to come into your presence with a thanksgiving and a song of praise that equals the glorious nature of yourself. For you are not only a great God. You are a great King above all gods. You hold the depths of the earth in your hand so that in the pressured darkness where the monsters swim we may rest within the surrounding walls of your strength. The heights of the mountains are also yours, giving us new challenges to climb, peaks to stand upon, and a pure vision of the roads that lay before us. You have made the sea, O God so that we can satisfy the desire to explore, and you have formed the dry land to teach us the value of work and the mystery of life.

Oh come, let us all worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For none of these gifts are given to help us understand ourselves better. Rather, they point back to the nature and character of His being. God is deep, and sometimes He stands in thick darkness calling us to come forward and meet with Him (Ex. 20:21). God places our feet on high places (Ps. 18:33) but He also calls us to cast away from the shore of security and explore the whole expanse of Himself (Dt. 4:29; Mt. 4:19). To move towards a kingdom not built with human hands. To become citizens in a better country than the one we have abandoned where God is not ashamed to be called our God and has prepared it for us (Heb 11:16). He has shown us that work is necessary both in the doing and the persisting, so that in our successes we may celebrate that He does not passively wait for time to tick down. He, too, is a perennial worker, shaping all mysteries after His will and giving life where a desert once lived.

He is our God. But we are stubborn, stupid, wandering sheep. We need a shepherd to guide us with his hand.

Therefore, help us to hear Your voice today, and to not harden our hearts. People have done this many times in the past and have put You to the test. They have demanded miracles and proof of Your love, despite having seen You work in their lives. We know that such behavior angers You, Lord, not because of our limitations to understand Your greatness. But rather because we have evaluated the landscape of our lives and have chosen something small to replace the God of infinite worth. Keep us from being that person who goes astray in their heart. May we know God’s ways. And enter into His rest. In Christ’s name, Amen.

Extravagant Love

Mark 14:3-5 (NIV)

 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

Have you ever noticed that extravagant expressions of love seemed to follow Jesus? A woman anoints Him with a years’ worth of perfume. A tax collector gives half of his possessions to the poor. Crowds lay palm branches at His feet and rejoice at His entering Jerusalem. And an untold number of people give their lives to promoting only His name throughout the world.

To many, these expressions of love would appear wasteful. And they would be if they were done for anyone other than God. No human beings’ life can match the worth of such excessively gracious gifts. But when compared with the insurmountable richness of God, the tribute of one’s possessions, monies, or life can never match the worth of His person or the gift of His grace.

In his book What Jesus Demands of the World, John Piper says, “…the Son of Man  came to save people from their suicidal love affair with possessions (and every other idol) and to lead then into a kind of impossible obedience that displays the infinite worth of Jesus.” (p. 23) This is not only the goal for Jesus’ relationship with Zaccheus, it is also His goal for the relationship you and I have with Him as well. The question that we must ask is: when or how did I most recently deny temporary, worthless things for the express purpose of displaying the infinite worth of Jesus? I know that if I am honest, I cannot remember a time that I put the public display of Jesus’ worth above my own. I have sought and dreamed of making myself great, but not Jesus. I have considered how to set my children on the path of success, or how to proclaim the beauty of my wife. I have lived a life full of potential selflessness and have squandered it on selfish pursuits. My goal has been to make much of myself, not of Jesus.

Perhaps this is why the question, “How do I extravagantly love Jesus?” struck me so hard. Despite being a Christian for over 35 years I realized I have relegated the expressions of extravagant love for God to “super Christians,” such as King David, the 12 apostles, Mother Teresa, or Billy Graham. I figured I could “try” to do my best, but extravagant love was such a low priority, it was completely off my radar.In reality, “trying” was just something I told myself I would do in order to muffle the twisting screams of conviction in my heart.

But God will only allow His chosen children to sit in the belly of their acidic choices for so long before He vomits them onto the beach and reminds them of their call to follow Him. Thus, I found myself staring at the heart of the question “How do you extravagantly love Jesus?” and trying to manage the stench of my sin.

“Extravagance,” I learned, comes from the Latin extravagari. It is a compound word that combines extra (meaning “outside”) and vagari (meaning “wander”). In other words, when you are being extravagant you are literally “wandering outside” the norms. You are so FAR outside the norms, in fact, that society or convention sees you as being “unusual, unreasonable, inappropriate, abnormal, or absurd.” This begs the question, then, have I restrained myself from loving God extravagantly because I do not want to be viewed as “weird?”

Perhaps. But I think it is more than that. I think extravagant love frightens most of us because we intuit that it demands more than a piece of living, such as behavior, or money, or relationships. Extravagant love demands all of life. Like sunlight through a magnifying glass, extravagant love is focused. It is white hot. And it burns away all idolatry within the heart. It refuses to give any ground to immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, crude joking, deception, disobedience, or anything else that partners in the unfruitful works of darkness. Extravagant love is not holding up placards within a crowd of thousands. It is standing alone in opposition to evil when everyone else bows down. It is exposing the deeds of darkness not only in our speech but also with our lives. It is being filled with the Spirit and making the best use of the time we have, being careful that we walk not as unwise but as wise followers of a God whose person is so compelling and alluring that others are drawn to Him because they have interacted with us. (Eph 5:1-21)

Half-hearted love cannot accomplish this goal. A heart divided between God and anything else is a heart that belongs to sentimentality, fads, or hollow imitation and will not be able to stand firm when the flaming arrows of the evil one begin to strike. A half-hearted loved cannot imitate Christ, who walked in love and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. A half-hearted love cannot say, “Not my will but thine be done” because it is always protecting other interests. Only those who love God extravagantly can live this way. Only they understand the truth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous statement, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer is not trying to be melodramatic here. He is trying to be biblical. “Freely you have received, ” Jesus said. “Freely give.” (Mt. 10:18) In other words, if you put limits on extravagant love you will find that your self-imposed boundaries prevent you from moving beyond your human capabilities so that you may see the work and the wonder of God. It is a basic truth of relationships that the degree of selfishness always diminishes the degree of love being expressed. If you do not freely give Christ your love, you cannot expect a deep intimacy with Him. Not because He is petulant or passive-aggressive, but because you have imposed limits on a relationship where there should be none.

In these moments it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we just need to focus more so that we do not damage the relationship we have with God. But this would be a poor approach to preventing a relapse into half-hearted love. Why? Because the idea of “I need to focus more” is founded on the emotion of fear and anxiety. 1st John 4:18 tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear.” Therefore, you do not need to work from a position of fear or anxiety. You need to work out of the emotion of love. Your goal should not be “don’t mess up.” Your goal should be “how do I show God love today?” How do you do this? Go back to 1st  Cor. 13:4-7 and write down the characteristics you find listed there. Next, define each characteristic in terms of an “I will” or an “I will not” statement. This will help put a practical, hands-on approach to it. For an example, see this handout: love-is

Finally, it must be pointed out that extravagant love always risks extravagant suffering. Maybe we don’t love in this way because we don’t want to be hurt. But vulnerability is always necessary for intimacy. And conflict is necessary for connection. Without conflict, we cannot explore, understand, learn, stretch, or discover. Conflict provides a challenge. It forces us to examine ourselves and our presuppositions against alternative ideas, beliefs, or realities that demand an answer. Even the most liberal of us tend to gravitate towards stasis, as evidenced by our desire to avoid change or conflict as much as possible. But the reality is that we cannot grow without it. We NEED conflict. Even the entertainment of such an idea as this forces us to wrestle with things we once thought resolved and it is this struggle that will eventually make us stronger, regardless of whether we reinforce our beliefs or adopt new philosophies. For this reason, we are warned in scripture that we Christians will be persecuted. We will not be immune from it. Christ suffered and we will too. And if you intend on extravagantly loving Christ, you must be prepared to extravagantly suffer for Him too. Sometimes this suffering will be an internal conflict and sometimes it will be an external one. And sometimes it will be both at the same time, making you feel like you are about to be ripped apart.

But when you go through these trials of your love for God, remember the words of Paul:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith,with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me,that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Eph. 6:10-20)

Look at that final sentence again. “Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” If Paul needed prayer for his extravagant love, so do we.

I will pray for you. Will you pray for me?

The Day After Christmas

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:20 NIV)

 

Ok. So here we are. The tree is bare. The used wrapping paper has been thrown away. And the holiday sugar crash has come and gone. Now, we are just trying to figure out how soon we want to step back on the treadmill. Some of us had a day off from work since Christmas was on a Sunday this year, but we are already beginning to look at our compressed schedules for the week and wondering, “Can I get everything done?” And the kids, who were so excited at 7 a.m. yesterday morning, are beginning to say, “I’m bored.” (Except for the one who got a Samsung Gear VR. He’s happily spinning in a chair, detached from his family, entertaining himself in another world)

Some of us had a day off from work since Christmas was on a Sunday this year, but we are already beginning to look at our compressed schedules for the week and wondering, “Can I get everything done?” And the kids, who were so excited at 7 a.m. yesterday morning, are beginning to say, “I’m bored.” (Except for the one who got a Samsung Gear VR. He’s happily spinning in a chair, detached from his family, entertaining himself in another world)

We’ve looked at the decorations once, but we don’t want to deal with that now. And the leftovers. Who’s going to eat all of that food? Our mind’s eye pictures the treadmill again. Maybe if I set it at just a slightly higher incline…

But it’s no use. We feel exhausted just thinking about summoning the energy needed for everything that lies ahead.

Is this what God intended for Christmas to be like?

Sometimes I wonder.

Our tradition of gift giving comes from the “three” (there could have been more) wise men. But they did not arrive to give their gifts until Jesus was around 2 years old. On the night of His birth, however, there was only one gift given to the Christ child.

No. Not “the gift of life.” That’s too obvious. And for a God who was preexistent, unnecessary.

No, what Christ received the night of His birth was both simple and profound. Summoned by a great company of angels, a throng of smelly shepherds searched every place in Jerusalem that had a manger until they discovered the sight of the nativity. There, surrounded by a small contingent of animals, a man and a woman bent over the small wooden trough and marveled at their newborn son. It must have been awkward for the parents to have this band of men peek their heads in and ask to view the baby. But they allowed it. And when the shepherds saw the angels’ message was true, it was then and only then that they gave their gift to the Christ.

What was the shepherds’ gift?

They gave the gift of praise.

Appropriate. Don’t you think?

In the true spirit of Christmas, “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.” Yes, the one Christmas gift that Christ received on his birthday is the same gift we seem to fail to give him every year.

We are so focused on giving to each other (and, let’s be honest, on receiving as well) that we forget to give the one gift that persists and remains relevant even 2000 years later.

Praise.

So, let’s take a moment. If this day after Christmas is leaving you feeling blah-hungover, maybe it’s time to put the focus back on the person it is intended to celebrate. Maybe today can be the beginning of exhilarated rejoicing of a promise fulfilled to all humanity. Maybe today we can begin to see Christmas for what it really is. God. In the flesh. As a baby. Given to mankind to take away the sins of the world.

If that’s not something to celebrate, you may have your priorities wrong.

 

(Quote from Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”)