A Magic Talisman

The Super Bowl this Sunday should be a great game between the Niners and the Ravens. I’m a lifelong Niners fan, so I hope my team pulls it out!

The interesting part of this for me has been watching the controversy surrounding Ray Lewis. Ray made a bunch of remarks about how the Ravens playoff run was God’s blessing on them and more recently about how no weapon formed against him shall prosper. This kind of stuff is pretty common in Christian circles in America today. Ray basically has said that he loves Jesus, and God has told him that his team is God’s favorite and they have God’s blessing.

raiders-of-the-lost-ark-1981That brings me to my devotions earlier in the week. I was reading 1 Samuel 4:1-11 and this common American Christian approach to God’s blessing and success hit me in the face. In that episode, Israel went to war against the Philistines. At first the Philistines defeat the Israelites and kill 4,000 soldiers. But then the Israelites have an idea and go get the Ark of the Covenant from its place in Shiloh. When it shows up in camp the Israelites shout for joy and the Philistines quake because the God of Israel is suddenly in camp. This God defeated the Egyptians and surely can defeat the Philistines. The Philistines even believe it!

As the narrative progresses, though, things change. The Israelites think that the presence of the Ark guarantees that God is on their side, but in reality the Philistines deal Israel a terrible defeat and kill 30,000 soldiers, scattering the rest. Not only that, but the Ark is captured by the Philistines! What a terrible defeat to Israel and a disrespect to God. If you read 1 Samuel 5 it’s clear that God can protect His Ark whenever he wants to (He kills a lot of Philistines and gives them tumors!), but for the Israelites having the presence of the Ark did not serve as a magic talisman of protection against defeat. They couldn’t use their God as a tool for military victory. That’s just not how it works!

This same thing seems to apply in our lives, as exemplified in the stories of Ray Lewis saying that God would not let his team be defeated. Maybe that’s so, but having a Psalm written on your shirt or a Jesus fish on your car is certainly no proof against evil. (Please oh please, Lord, may my Philistine 49ers teach the Ravens a lesson in humility!:) ) That’s not to call Lewis out personally; he’s just repeating what he’s been taught and what is very common in prosperity preaching in America today. God wants you to be rich and successful, to win the Super Bowl or get the contract or the girl. Anyone who is not with you in that is the enemy and therefore God’s enemy.

No.

A football game is not a moral issue. It is not good vs. evil. It is not God’s team vs. Satan’s team. It’s two talented football teams playing a game to see who is better for 60 minutes on that day. It’s competitive, it’s intense, there is a lot of money and prestige on the line, but God doesn’t really care who wins I don’t think. And putting God’s character on the line to come through with a Ravens victory runs afoul of Exodus 20:7 I do believe.

That’s the lesson in the 1981 classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The Germans thought that the Ark was a powerful weapon, but it protected itself from them. (or, more accurately, God protected it from them…just like in 1 Samuel 5!) God is not a magic incantation to bring success. He is not a weapon to be used, but the Lord God Almighty of the universe to be worshiped!

So please, think before you equate your success with God’s success. Think before you say that someone else interviewing for a job you want can’t have it because “no weapon formed against me shall prosper.” If victory in the world is God’s mark of success, then a lot of people we look up to failed. The Apostle Paul comes to mind, who died in jail. Moses, who wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land because of his failure. The Apostle Peter was crucified for following Jesus. Even Jesus, whose mission it was to come and lose the ultimate battle on our behalf. Only through that loss (which He despised [Hebrews 12:2]) brought ultimate victory and vindication, and only then before God and not people. Same with Paul and Peter and Moses and many others.

Don’t use God as a magic talisman. Instead entrust Him with the outcomes and worship Him no matter if you get to play in the Super Bowl or get the first pick in next year’s draft.

Dead or Alive?

I’ve been hearing this phrase in my head over and over in the past few months:

“Every living thing changes.”

Maybe it’s partly because I’ve noticed that the gray hairs in my beard are staging a coup d’etat over the dark hairs. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through a lot of transitions in life the past few months at church and at school and at home and with friends. And change can be scary because it moves me away from something that I know and into the unknown.

But if it’s static and unchanging, it’s not alive. A living person is constantly changing. (cue comments about my weight going up and gray in my hair…) Likewise, a relationship that is alive is always evolving and growing and moving. I thank God that my marriage is not in the same place that it was when we said “I do” 17 years ago! A business that thrives is always changing. IBM, for instance, began as a maker of dials and time recorders in the 1880s. Imagine if Apple had decided to stick to making desktops and Steve Jobs hadn’t changed to embrace the mobile phone market!

This is true of people as well. Consider the Apostle Paul, who in my mind is the greatest follower of Christ to ever live. In one of his earliest letters, he says in Galatians 5:12 “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” That’s pretty hard core! But at the end of life, in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, the very same man said, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.”

This is also the case with our spiritual life. If it is not growing, it’s not living. That’s not to say that we’re not saved (salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone), but it’s not living and breathing and useful for today. This is what James talks about in James 2:17, that a faith that is not working and growing and changing is dead.

Every living thing changes. So embrace the change and the growth.

How about you? Where are you changing? Is your marriage changing for the better? Are you growing closer to God, growing in your use of your spiritual giftedness in service to God for the benefit of the kingdom, and changing your heart? If you took a spiritual inventory would you find that compared to a year ago some things have definitely changed, or are you in about the same place?

Every living thing changes.

What’s Heaven Like?

I was driving home from picking my two youngest daughters up from Kenpo this week, and we had a hilarious exchange that got me thinking:

 

My 6-year-old: When I get to heaven, the first thing I want to do is go swimming.

Me (trying not to laugh): Really? Why swimming?

Her: Because swimming is awesome and it will be awesome in heaven!

My 10-year-old: Well, when I get to heaven the first thing I want to do is hug Jesus!

My 6-year-old: Okay, hug Jesus first, then swimming!

 

First of all, it was hilarious. Kids can be so funny!  Secondly, though, it amazes me what kids think about God. Specifically, her thoughts about heaven and what eternity will be like amaze me.  And you know, she could be quite right that there will be swimming in heaven; if there is, I bet it will be awesome. (yes, I know Revelation 21:1 says there is no sea…it does not say that there are no swimming pools!)

 

Revelation 21 says that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and that the new Jerusalem will be amazing. In Genesis 1:31 God says that the creation was “very good,” so I am betting that the new one will be even better! But notice that there is not only new heavens, but a new earth. It seems that in eternity there will be an earth, and it will be populated. In Luke 19:17 the returning master gives his faithful servant authority over cities (plural), meaning there will be government and apparently an economy. There will be jobs! (not sea-based jobs, apparently) 

 

This reflects the perfection of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve had vocation and responsibility. It seems this is how eternity will be as well.  That encourages me, even though when we’re all perfect and holy and filled with God’s grace without sin, I will have to find a new vocation! It doesn’t seem that heaven is sitting on clouds and singing in an angel choir for many. If not, and if we will have vocation there, then my job today can be a reflection of the kingdom of God if I will commit it to Christ and work at it like it is His plan for me.  And that, I will do, as well as I can.

 

How about you? When you close your eyes, what does heaven look like? What are you most looking forward to doing when you’re in the perfect eternal state of joy?

Single-minded Focus

1434140008I love riding my motorcycle. I love to ride because it requires focus and concentration to ride safely and effectively and to have fun doing it. Motorcycle riding doesn’t allow for multitasking! I can’t answer my cell phone or eat or listen to the radio while on the bike; every bit of attention has to be focused on my surroundings, what other cars are doing, anticipation of what is ahead of and beside me, what gear I am in and throttle position, lane space, etc. It takes single-mindedness to successfully ride and not end up as street pizza!

 

Don’t get me wrong; I have seen people riding their motorcycle while smoking, while talking on the phone, listening to an iPod and more. For me, though, I can’t do any of that stuff and ride in a safe manner. For me to enjoy the ride and get there safe, I have to have single-minded devotion!

 

As I rode in to the office this morning, I got to thinking that this is a great analogy to the Christian life. This is the same kind of devotion that Paul talks about with regard to our Christian life: it takes focus and single-minded devotion to do it well.

 

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (Philippians 3:12–16, ESV)

 

No distractions, no other priorities, no competing ideas to keep him from living for Christ. That’s the path to keep from wrecking our faith and being unfruitful for the kingdom.

 

How about you? Are you single-minded in your devotion to the Lord, or are the distractions of life keeping you from being all that God wants for you? How do you deal with distractions and temptations? What helps you and what hurts your focus on Christ?

Where does the time go?

I know a lot of people who wonder what a pastor does. We have a running joke at my church that I only work for 30 minutes a week! (which is how long my sermons usually last…okay, more like 35-40) It’s true, I do know some pastors whose golf game is too polished for their own good, and some who spend too much time on Facebook. (pointing the finger at myself there!)

 

But if you wonder what your pastor does, chances are that’s because he’s not allowed to share with you what he is doing. Hear me out.

 

When you ask what he did today, how in the world can he answer that he sat and talked with a couple you know at church who is in the throes of infertility, whose hearts are broken but who can’t share that even with close friends? How does he he tell you that he had to spend time alone praying for a friend who confessed sexual infidelity, praying that he will listen to the Spirit and come clean to his wife? How can you tell them that you sat and agonized over how to confront someone in love about their sin that you know about? Or that you thought and prayed and talked all morning about how to help the congregation see that a person’s sin is always forgivable?

 

How can you tell them that you spent 5 hours pouring over an email communication to the church so that it balanced speaking truth with not being a gossip? How do you justify chasing a Hebrew verb through the whole Old Testament to verify a nuance in the text, only to see at the end that you were wrong and it is not so nuanced after all?

 

How do you share with them that you spent the afternoon talking with a friend on the phone who everyone loves to listen to teach in Sunday School but admits to you that they aren’t sure Christ is more than a myth?  How can you share that someone reached out to you to say that they are secretly gay, and that they need someone to talk to because “the Church” (capital C) has too many pat answers and not enough real concern and care?

 

How can you share that you had to spend the day in prayer for your family who is struggling, and that you think it might be a spiritual attack of some sort because you’re trying to serve Christ? How can you share that you spent the day finding out about the effects of huffing bath salts on a person’s brain and how to get them help because someone in your congregation is doing it? How do you say that you prayed with a family whose teenage son is abusing drugs and harming himself? That you visited a congregant with a mental disorder in a treatment facility?

 

Heck, for that matter how can you say that you spent a few hours evangelizing to people within your congregation, who say all the right things but in reality don’t know Christ? 

 

I share a bunch of these not because I have experienced them all (I haven’t), but because I have a lot of friends in ministry and this is not out of the realm of a typical pastoral month.  I am grateful that it’s not a typical week!

 

What he can tell you about is the victories, the good stuff, and where people are rejoicing and celebrating. Sometimes that comes off like the world is rainbows and lollipops, but in reality there is plenty of that in ministry as well and he can share that because it is allowable. When someone trusts Christ he can share that. When a person overcomes addiction he might not be able to though, because that person doesn’t want it publicly known that they had addiction to begin with.

 

Here’s the bottom line: if you wonder what your pastor does, that’s a lot of it. And most of that he can’t share with you, because it would break confidentiality and harm the people he is trying to help. It would break relationships and bring destruction upon his ministry and harm to the kingdom of God. 

 

What’s more, if he is called to be a shepherd it is what he is meant to do.  Crazy as it sounds, even in the hard times he is driven to help people see God and live for Him, to experience grace and mercy and righteousness.  It’s hard work, and much of it is confidential work, so pray for your pastor. Realize that he’s not just sitting at home all week watching I Love Lucy reruns, but that a lot of his life is off limits not because you’re not worthy of it but because he just can’t share. And be grateful for his ministry.

 

To be explicit, I am not writing this to my church family as a passive-aggressive way of asking them to have sympathy on me or to pat me on the back, but for the readers of ABF who don’t really know what a pastor does in their congregation.

 

So how about you? What do you think your pastor does in a typical month? Do you think it’s a hard job or a fun one?