Archive for the ‘Lent 2015’ Category

I waited all day. All day it was cloudy, foggy, rainy and just plain miserable. I waited and waited–hoping against hope that the sun would come out and burn away the dreariness of the day. And at last, it happened. The sun came out, the mist faded away, and the day became clear.

It was a glorious thing and after the sun came out the day only seemed to get better. 

Spent the evening at the church. Talked to an old friend who was one my youth sponsors when I was a younger man–he and his wife were a blessing to my family when I was learning how not to be an idiot and again when my wife was sick. Back at home, I was told by my wife that the son of some friends of ours had died. He was 45. I had the privilege of baptizing his parents when I was still a preacher. I am sad for them. Very sad. 

In Bible study, we spent some time talking about God's Word, the 'importance of learning and keeping God's teaching.' It was an interesting study of Proverbs 3:1-7. 

My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but keep my commands in your heart,
for they will prolong your life many years
    and bring you peace and prosperity.

Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
    bind them around your neck,
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
Then you will win favor and a good name
    in the sight of God and man.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord and shun evil.

There's a part of me that thinks Solomon, or whoever wrote this, was reflection on the words found in Deuteronomy–especially that first sentence where he admonishes his son to 'not forget his teaching.' I agree with the teacher tonight that Solomon, or whoever wrote this, was thinking about the Scripture, the Law. In Deuteronomy, it was the king's task to do this very thing: "When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of the law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees" (Deuteronomy 17:18-19).

In an interesting twist, Solomon forgot nearly everything the Lord said the king was not to do, but I suspect he may well have done this thing: I suspect he did make a copy of the Law. I suspect that much of what is written in Proverbs is a reflection on that Law that he read and copied. I could be wrong and I have no proof, but I have a suspicion. These seven verses in Proverbs 3 kind of reek of Deuteronomy 17 and other chapters. 

I like the lesson we had tonight because it spoke to some of the things that I too believe about the church and the Scripture. I think as a church (generally, not specifically) we do not do enough corporate reading of Scripture and I'd like to see that change. Maybe. We were warned by the prophet that a time would come when there would be a famine in the land for the word of God (Amos 8:11-12). 

What I was thinking about, though, was this passage in Proverbs. It could be that it's merely an English phenomenon that the word 'heart' appears in three strategic places in these seven verses, or maybe not. I don't have time right now to dig deeper, so let's assume that the word 'heart' really is there in Hebrew. If it is, then here's the progression of the verses:

3:1: "…keep my commands in your heart…"

3:3: "…let love and faithfulness never leave you, bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart."

3:5: "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart…"

There's a lot I could say here, but I want to just say this much: maybe the path to being able to trust in the Lord with all of our heart and leaning not on our own understanding begins by keeping the word of God close to our hearts, by keeping love and faithfulness close to the heart as well. Maybe we can trust God more when we know God better and that we know God better when we spend more time with him–in his word and by drawing near to him in love and faithfulness. Maybe the key is to replace our own understanding with an understanding that is far superior in every way.

Whatever else might be said, there is a connection here in these three verses between the Word of God, the Love of God, and Trusting God–and not just trusting, but being able to trust. I think the connection is easy to see. When we go through dark times in life, it seems to me that those who know God best are those who are able to walk through the valleys without fear or without losing hope. The people who have spent the most time walking with God through his Word are those who, it seems to me, practice love and faithfulness the most. And isn't it interesting that those who do these things are the very ones who never blink when the valley is dark and the mists of March cloud the day?

I'm not perfect by any stretch of the word. I have failed more than I care to remember–and many of my failures are indelibly etched into my brain. Sometimes these failures cause doubts and fears and even worse days than mere days. There is way through, at least I have found it so, and that is by being in the Word of God and walking with God constantly. There is a way to have those failures erased and that is by allowing the Word of God to cover over them, to rebuild our hearts cell by cell, to scratch out the sorrow and bitterness and once again be clothed with love and faith.

It's a rough thought I have written tonight. I might need to think about it some more, but there's a kernel here for all of us. There's a reason why God gave us the Bible. It's not a riddle book. It's not merely a story book. It's not rules and law and this or that. It is God speaking to us, telling us about himself and who he is, and what he is about, and his hopes and dreams for us. I don't understand it all and I don't try to. But for those who have ears to hear, Jesus said, let them hear. Sometimes the best we can do is just to listen to what God is saying and learn just a little about him that might help us through a dark time that is even less understood than the God we don't understand.

Read. Write. Trust.

Sounds like a perfect recipe to me.

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Here I am in the midst of the Lenten season. I have been reading my Bible, trying to pray, avoiding social media, and really working hard to get myself into a routine that is conducive to good faith practice–that is, I've been working real hard to root our sin and draw closer to Jesus. It is necessary because I know myself and I know when I am off-balance my tendency is to let it affect everything in my life. I can still function, but it is not a robust functioning. It's more like a robotic, going through the motions kind of functioning devoid of joy and verve.

I mentioned in a previous post, Lenten Reflection #6, that I have been reading the Psalms and the Proverbs as part of my Lenten reflection. I learn something new every time I read the Psalms. They are without doubt one of my favorite books of the Bible for reasons I have mentioned elsewhere: they are raw with emotion and powerful naked humanity on display. DA Carson, in his book How Long, O Lord?, writes this about Psalm 6 in particular and the Psalms in general:

It is overwhelmingly important to reflect on the fact that this psalm and dozens of similar ones are included in Scripture. There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God's people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, the complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but a faith so robust it wrestles with God.

David…does not display stoic resignation, nor does he betray doubt that God exists. Even when he feels abandoned by God, his sense of isolation issues in an emotional pursuit of the God who, in his view, is slow to answer. (67)

So this morning as I was reading my Psalms for the day and jotting a few thoughts in my journal, it struck me that frequently the Psalmists cry out to God, "How Long, Lord?" Well of course I have know it was there because I have read it before, but for some reason this morning it stood out to me like a rose on a thorn bush.

Psalm 6:1: "My soul is deep in anguish. How long, Lord, How long?"

Psalm 13:1: "How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?"

Psalm 35:17: "How long, Lord, will you look on?"

Psalm 79:5: "How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire?"

Psalm 89:46: "How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?"

Psalm 94:3: "How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long with the wicked be jubilant?"

And if that isn't enough, this is only one way the Psalmists ask where God is at any given moment. Sometimes they are even more to the point, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22).

Tough to figure out this God–this God who is 'playing hard to get' (R Mullins). I mean think about it, why would the Psalmist have to cry out, "Answer me when I call to you my righteous God?" (Psalm 4:1) if God is already active in this world and in our lives? Why do we have to ask God to answer us? It almost sounds like a parent scolding a child who stubbornly refuses to answer: Answer me when I am talking to you! The child of course, will not be cajoled into speaking until he is ready to speak and there is nothing the parent can do but wait….wait….wait….

"Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless." (Psalm 10:12)

I wrote in my journal this morning a few thoughts about this 'How long, Lord?' question I keep seeing in the Psalms. I have to be honest: I find this question the most frustrating of all the questions the Psalmists ask. You know why? Because there is literally nothing I can do to force God's hand or to open his mouth. I can pray. I can sing. I can offer myself daily as a 'living sacrifice'. Nothing. God opens his mouth when he is ready and until then…the righteous, the faithful–whoever they are–wait.

And it get's no better in the New Testament. I recall twice, at least, when I hear this question asked. One indirectly in Acts 1: "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" I take this as an indirect, "How long, Lord? How long?" The other time is more direct and is found in Revelation 6: "They called out in a loud voice, 'How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'" Wow. Even New Testament people are not answered, always, directly or quickly.

I came to a couple of conclusions in my journal notes.

First, it seems safe to say that the people of God must wait. We wait a lot. I guess, however, that we are willing to wait. We must wait. What else is there to do but hope…and wait? (That's the last line of my favorite book of all time, The Count of Monte Cristo.)

Second, the people of God complain a lot while they wait. I don't see that God anywhere in Scripture ever faults his people for their anxious prayers or the words that make up the prayers. In fact, God seems to desire our prayers.

Third, I'm not sure what God is doing with all those cries. I think about Israel in Egypt for 400 years. Then the writer of the Exodus tells us, almost casually, "The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them" (Exodus 2:23-25). Really? He saw their oppression and looked on them? Meanwhile, Moses had to grow to about 80 years before the prayer was answered.

Fourth, read Hebrews 11. "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised" (11:39). None of them?!? Seriously? Then in almost the very next breath he writes, "Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith."

Fifth, you ever just get tired of waiting?

This week has been Dr Seuss week at the school–perhaps all across the country. Each day we have been reading different Dr Seuss books and completing little projects to go along with the book. Tomorrow's book is Oh, the Places You'll Go. This is a great book, but for some reason I haven't been able to find my copy so I decided to look up a youtube version and let the kids watch it. I always  preview these things and while watching it after school today, here's what I heard:

And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…
or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it's not, I'm afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

On the one hand, it seems to be the thing about being a Christian. We spend a lot of time waiting. I don't think I wanted to wake up today and think another minute about waiting. I certainly didn't want to work on a Dr Seuss project this afternoon and think about waiting. I typically hate when Valentine tells her husband at the end of Monte Cristo that we have to 'hope and wait.' I hate waiting. I'm tired of waiting. I wish God would hurry up and make some kind of revelation about what he's doing or going to do or whatever.

On the other hand, we do seem to spend a great deal of our life waiting. Maybe that's because God thinks we need a lot of mid-course corrections. The trick, I think, is to press on through the waiting, through the times when we are seemingly standing still. Maybe when it seems we are standing still is when we are actually making the most forward progress. Maybe.

I don't think waiting is 'wasted space'. Or wasted time, for that matter. Waiting is waiting and we occupy our time with thoughts (think about Hebrews 11 again) and the business of the Kingdom and with creating space for God to move within us. Waiting is a way of unfettering ourselves from all that keeps us moving in the wrong direction. Waiting allows us to re-evauate, re-assess, and re-direct our lives or, better, to allow God to do so.

I don't know who said it or where it came from, but in the front of my Bible I once scribbled these words: Maybe what God is doing in you while you wait is more important than what you are waiting for.

Now, once again, I am undone.

Undone. And waiting.

Along with other reading I am doing in the Bible, for example, just today I finished reading the book we call Isaiah, I am reading the Psalms and the Proverbs. I'm not sure I remember exactly where I picked up on the idea, but when I read the Psalms and the Proverbs I do so like this: five Psalms per day, 1 chapter of Proverbs per day. This enables me to read both books entirely in 30 days. This is a good practice for anyone, at any time, but it's an especially helpful practice during Lent given that we have 40 days to work with. So even if one gets behind a day or two, the books can still be completed in a relatively good amount of time.

Personally, I think the book of Psalms is likely the book that persuades me of the veracity of the Christian claim. Perhaps that sounds strange given that New Testament books speak directly to and announce rather loudly those claims; perhaps even speak primarily those claims. It's true. I don't deny that. At another level, however, there is the working mind and all of us, regardless of who we are, have a mind that functions in different ways. For example, as a man my mind is, according to some theories, supposed to connect with and be moved by a sort of raw masculinity, a blood and guts kind of appreciation for dirt and adventure. To an extent, I suppose I am. I love watching Rambo and Terminator movies for example. But if I told you I watched them for reasons other than the violence and blood you'd probably call me a liar.

But I do.

I watch Rambo, at least First Blood, because it is a redemption story and it moves me. Emotionally. I watch Terminator movies because they evoke in me a sense of hopelessness that only finds solace in someone outside the film. I do not watch any film for the sake of mere bloodsport or violence–which is why traditional horror films do nothing for me at all: there is simply no emotion. Jason Vorhees killed to kill and we never saw any emotion. Same with Michael Myers. At least Freddy Krueger had the scars to prove his emotion. Funny how the killers in these horror films always have to have their faces rearranged, isn't it?

I watch movies for the story they tell and because in movies I am permitted to experience the full sway of my emotions without repercussion from anyone. Truth? I still cry at the end of Return of the Jedi when Luke throws away his light saber and chooses certain death over unlimited power and during the last scene of Return of the King when the king bows before the hobbits of the Shire and at the end of The  Shawshank Redemption when Andy and Red share a hug on a beach. Hope. And don't get me started on The Sound of Music. That film wipes me out with each note they sing.

There are many other movies that do the same thing to me. It's not sentimentalism and since I don't watch cheap romance films, I am scarcely moved by simple boy-gets-girl or girl-gets-boy stories. I am moved by love–raw, uncontrollable, undeniable, sometimes angry and proven love in movies. I get that from heroes who die for those they love. I get that from characters who make hard choices in the face of evil or have to take matters of justice into their own hands and wrestle with that decision frequently. I get that from justice being done and the world being set to rights. I get that when dragons are slain and color returns the gray void. It's like seeing Dorothy open her door for the first time in Oz and seeing color–which is a scene, perhaps more than any other in The Wizard of Oz, that moves me.

I connect with those people and the story they tell. I connect with the emotions they share–and some actors are far better at it than others which is why I gravitate towards their films rather frequently. I have even seen Tom Cruise emote in a way that moves me.

So, the Psalms. The Psalms are like little films to me. Each one tells a story and yet each one is part of a fabric woven together to form part of a greater quilt. And the Psalms are nothing if not raw expressions of emotion and love. As a man, I'm not supposed to be in tune with my emotions, but I promise you there are times when the Psalms have made me weep. Each Psalm is a script in a movie and there are heroes and goats; there are gods and men; there are women and men; there are props and animals; there is a soundtrack; there is a back story. Not all of them feature each element yet some have all of these elements.

I love the Psalms because the Psalms are raw emotion. There is virtually no emotion the Psalms avoid. There is no scenario the Psalms haven't explored. There is drama in the Psalms–in every one of them. And for some reason, I like it.

I like that these men who wrote the Psalms were not afraid to let that emotion pour out in a very public way to God. Whoever put the book of Psalms together was a pure genius because they understood that YHWH invented emotions. And the writers of the Psalms–whether they knew they were writing Scripture or not is beside the point–understood that God was not afraid of their anger, their fear, their sadness, their joy, their anxiety, their boredom, their bloodthirsty-ness, their hunger, their tears, their uncertainty, their loneliness, their exhaustion, their guilt, their sin, their shame, their love, their hate, their hurt, their shame, their exaltation, their indifference, and much more besides. And for this reason, I connect deeply with the Psalms. Jesus did too given that he quoted from them even as he hung on the cross. In these drama filled, emotion laden scripts Jesus found a voice for his own emotion: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22)

The Psalms are a roller coaster of emotional outpouring. We can relate to the Psalms because these are all the things we feel and experience everyday of our lives and the Psalms tell us that we can pour out all these things on God, that he hears, that he (eventually) answers, and that at the very heart of things: God cares about his covenant people; deeply. Deeply enough that there is scarcely a word we can utter that offends him. The message of the Psalms: Pour it out and if you don't have your own words, pilfer from these 150 poems.

And for this same reason, in my mind, the Psalms more than anything else persuade me of the truth claims of Scripture: because of their raw honesty and their childlike expression of this honesty. The Psalms are not out to 'prove' anything even if the Psalms happen to demonstrate many things. The Psalms' only objective, and of course I recognize that the Psalms are doing more than this, is to lay out this deep yearning and longing that finds no resolution here on earth or among people. They take us to the very heights of the world to the very depths of hell, they leave us with unanswered prayers, they leave us weeping on couches and suffering bouts of insomnia.

What I like about the Psalms is that for all their perfection and beauty they teach us that the world we live in is not perfect, is not always beautiful, that life is not always predictable, and that YHWH is not a cosmic vending machine who is at our beck and call. Sometimes he waits….off in the distance…maybe just to see if we have the nerve to cry out to him and trust him while we wait. He cares; yes, deeply. Yet ultimately even the Psalms tell us a story with a greater plot–a story in which we are characters who play a vital role. In his short book A Case for the Psalms, NT Wright wrote:

In the same way, the story the Psalms tell is the story Jesus came to complete. It is the story of the creator God taking his power and reigning, ruling on earth as in heaven, delighting the whole creation by sorting out its messes and muddles, its injuries and injustices, once and for all. It is also the story of malevolent enemies prowling around, of people whispering lies and setting traps, and of sleepless nights and bottles full of tears. (31)

I like the Psalms because they allow me to drink deeply of the emotions of others and to pour out my emotions. They are a place where my masculinity is not called into question when my emotions are on full sleeve display. I know of a congregation or two where the preacher was not allowed to be so emotional. I distinctly recall him being told to 'fake it' because it's not 'professional' to be emotive. It's not professional to weep openly or to express deep grief and sorrow and hurt. I think congregations like this bore God. Most preachers are accused of being liars; this one was accused of being honest. I think these are also congregations where preachers are constantly on edge because the congregation constantly wants him to subdue his emotions–imagine telling Jeremiah, the weeping prophet to stifle his emotions.

I also think these congregations are the ones who pour salt into the wounds of the preachers or twist the knife in his back a little harder and deeper. These are the congregations who have no clue how to come alongside one who is suffering and just sit and mourn or laugh or sing. These are congregations who are very unfamiliar with the man who 'took up our sorrows', the man acquainted with suffering and grief, the man who cried out to God in desperation, and wept openly at a funeral.

I suspect that congregations like this should spend more time reading the Psalms. Or the Bible in general. They should become acquainted with the people who poured out such emotion before God. They should become acquainted with Jesus who affirmed them.

 

Related articles

Learning to Talk, Lenten Reflections #3
Fixed Eye Faith, Lenten Reflections #2
Renewing the Mind, Lenten Reflections #4

In a little book I have called Answering God, author Eugene Peterson writes,

"But the first requirement of language is not to make us nice but accurate. Prayer is not particularly 'nice.' There is a recognition in prayer of the fiercer aspects of God…Psalm language is not careful about offending our sensibilities; its genius is its complete disclosure of the human spirit as it makes response to the revealing God. Given the mess that things are in, it will not be surprising that some unpleasant matters have to be spoken, and spoken in the language of our sin-conditioned humanity, for the language of prayer is, most emphatically, human language. It is not angel talk." (41-42)

Sometimes we simply do not have the words though. Sometimes talking to God is difficult because perhaps we think what we have to say might be offensive or too caustic for God's ears. When I read through the Psalms–or the Bible in general–I am quickly disabused of that idea. Those who pray use real words and often rather salty language. It seems that God's ears are quite accustomed to our complaints and our verbal atrocities. He's been around a while; he can handle it.

But that's not how we pray. It really isn't. I have been involved in the church since I was born. I cannot remember a day when I haven't been involved with the church in some way. And I am one of those people who actually listens to everything that is said in church. I pay close attention because I want to hear the Scripture read and preached, I want to hear the prayers prayed and offered, and I want to hear the Spirit move among God's people. On the other hand, I'm also like Stanley Hauerwas who wrote,

"I do not trust prayer to spontaneity. Most 'spontaneous prayers' turn out, upon analysis, to be anything but spontaneous. Too often they conform to formulaic patterns that include ugly phrases such as, 'Lord, we just ask you…" Such phrases are gestures of false humility, suggesting that God should give us what we want because what we want is not all that much. I prayer that God will save us from 'just.' (Hannah's Child, 255)

Hauerwas goes on to note that because of his fear he took to writing out his prayers. I'm OK with that. Some folks need to do just such a thing. When I was younger I objected to such things, but the older I get and the more cut & paste prayers I hear from people leading worship or in small groups, the more I am fine with the practice. Nevertheless, I think there might also be another solution though and that solution has to do with the Scripture.

Part of the reason I think corporate prayers are so anemic is because our minds have not drank deeply enough of the Scripture to let it saturate the part of our brains that generates language. Or we are simply content with formulating our own nonsense. But if we trust that the Bible is the Word of God then why shouldn't we pray back his words to him? Why shouldn't we remind him of what he said? Why shouldn't we pray the very words he gave us and hurl back to him the words he hurled at us?

I'm not sure why we think our words are better than his words. But to my point: the prayers we offer in public worship, the prayers offered by our leaders (preachers, elders, deacons), those prayers are weak and speak nothing: "Thank you God for this day. We just pray for this or that. Bless the gift and the giver so that your message will go out in this community and around the world. Be with us."

There's nothing wrong with these words at all, but when these words are the meat and substance of our prayers, and when these are the same words repeated time and time again from pulpits and by leaders, it makes me stop and wonder if we are even in tune with what the Bible has to say about the work God has planned for us, through Jesus, in this world? Jesus said that the very gates of hell cannot count an offensive to stop the church or mount a defensive position that the church cannot conquer. Yet our prayers are prayers thanking God for the day. Again, nothing wrong with thanking God for the day, but don't you think our prayers could have a little more urgency? Don't you think our leaders should pray with a bit more expectancy? Don't you think our prayers should have a little more prophecy infused? 

I mean seriously: Why are all those prayers we read in the Bible there in the first place? Are we just supposed to read them? Are they there for decorative purposes? Are they there so we can marvel at how wonderful the saints of old prayed? Or are they there to guide and direct our own prayer life, to give us words to pray, directions for our journey, and/or language to fatten up our prayers? Think about Jesus on the cross and the prayers he prayed. Luke 23:46: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" is from Psalm 31:5. Mark 15:34: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" is a quote from Psalm 22:1. Or think about Stephen in Acts 7 who was stoned to death because of Jesus. He prayed twice during his execution: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and "Lord do not hold this sin against them." Well, it seems to me that these are both allusions to the words that Jesus prayed on the cross, words that Jesus quoted from Scripture.

Or think about Revelation 6:10: "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" This was prayed by the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. But here again is my point: How many times in the Older Testament, especially the Psalms, do we see these words or words similar to them? Look at Psalm 13:1, for example. Or Psalm 6:3. Or Habakkuk 1:2 for that matter. The point, of course, is that even these dead saints in Revelation are still praying the Scripture.

This post could go on for a while because I haven't really even laid out all of my reasons for believing these things or the reasons why I think we should pray the Scripture. And by 'pray the Scripture' I do not only mean using the language of Scripture but I mean literally praying through it. That is, opening up a book of the Bible and literally praying it's words back to the Father–kind of like we do when we recite the Lord's prayer. Like I said, this post could go on for a while and I want to end it for now. Suffice it to say, in conclusion, that I think perhaps it would do us well to dig deeper into the Scripture as congregations. Our lives as members of the church should be centered around the Scripture. Scripture should be read frequently from the pulpit. Scripture should be sung. Scripture should be read as part of the worship. Scripture should be prayed. Scripture should be preached. Scripture should be read privately and publicly.

I hear the words of Amos the prophet:

"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "When I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it" (8:11-12).

I get this. I think it's going on right now and is evidenced in the prayers we pray.

Several years ago I became rather obsessed with the book in the New Testament we call 'Hebrews.' I don't remember the exact dates off the top of my head, I just remember catching a glimpse of it one day (I think I may have been reading N.T. Wright's book Following Jesus) and then diving in deeper until I absolutely fell in love with the short letter. Aside from those concerning chapter 11, I have heard very few sermons from Hebrews–which is a shame. It's a beautiful book in every way and, in my opinion, not terribly difficult to interpret.

Well, of course there are some parts that are difficult to understand and which might call for some more nuanced explanations, but I think if a person reads the book slowly and looks for some key clues in context (which are rather easy to find in our English Bibles), then the book begins to make sense in every way. And the truth is, I'd love to share that with you and perhaps someday I will. Tonight though I'd just like to focus for a minute on the particular verse that is kind of my theme verse during this Lenten season.

"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." (Hebrews 12:1b-2)

I kept coming back to this verse today…thinking about Jesus being the author (pioneer; trailblazer) of our faith and why, if this is true, I should 'fix my eyes' on him. Because let's be honest,it's not like I can literally see him no matter how hard I stare and no matter how fixed my eyes become on a particular spot in the sky. It's not that I think Jesus is in the sky, but, well, I guess that's where I have been trained to look for God: up there.

So the questions are something like: How do I fix my eyes on Jesus? and Why do I fix my eyes on Jesus.

I have heard a lot of folks get down on the church or Christianity or even Jesus. They have things to say like, "Oh you are just running away from your problems." Or, "You are just avoiding all the lousy stuff in the world." Stuff like that. But I don't think that's it at all. The book of Hebrews does not say we are running away from anything–but we are running to someone. Just because we are running to someone doesn't mean we are running from anything though. I look at all that went on in the life of Jesus, his apostles, his saints…they were hardly escapists practicing escapism. I think the key is found in the first word of chapter 12: Therefore.

The word 'therefore' follows closely on the heels of everything that was written in the 'great faith chapter', Hebrews 11 which, interestingly enough, begins with a discussion of faith: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for" (11:1-2). Oh, so faith is being certain of things we do not see…therefore…fix your eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of faith. Faith is not about not seeing, it's about seeing the right things. Faith is not about blindness, it's about being perfectly sighted. Faith is not being oblivious to what we see or endure in this world, it's about being fully aware that this world is not all there is.

Faith is about knowing where to look. Faith is about knowing to whom we look. Faith is about being able to discern who gives us hope and who does not. I find it not one bit ironic or strange that the author of Hebrews then points us to the one place where there is absolutely no historical doubt: Jesus was crucified. Of there there is not one shred of doubt–except from the sort of people who would not have faith anyhow. Yet because of this crucifixion we have faith that sees beyond this culture of death we have created–the world walks hand in hand with the devil who comes to 'kill, steal, and destroy.' Don't mistake it; it's all around us. Yet we are among those who do not fear death, even though we fear it, because we fix our eyes on Jesus.

Like when Stephen was being stoned to death in Acts 7: "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." That is faith! Faith that sees.

So look at all of chapter 11 and see the sort of trouble all those saints got into precisely because they refused to look anywhere but Jesus. For example, "By faith, Moses, when he had grown up refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy a season of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible." Amazing…Moses had eyes powerful enough to see someone who is invisible!

Faith isn't about 'blind-leaps'; faith is about being able to see beyond what normal eyes can see. Faith has eyes to see things at a distance and welcome them. Faith has eyes to see a better city, a better land than the one we live in now. Faith has eyes to see beyond the destruction of the flesh. Faith looks forward to a better resurrection. Faith has eyes to see Jesus…even amidst the clutter and culture of death that surround us.

You see, I think what I've been learning is this: it is terribly difficult to go through life with eyes that scatter all around–like Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter books whose crazy eye was constantly zipping this way and that. Life doesn't function so well when that's what we are doing with our eyes. Our eyes need to be fixed on Jesus–the pioneer, trailblazer, architect, author and perfecter of our faith. I think sometimes I work too hard trying to muster up faith and I get discouraged when I fail. I'm always looking around trying to catch a glimpse of what faith looks like, heroic faith, radical faith. And people, some people, make a living telling the rest of us what real faith looks like. And then we try to recreate that faith in ourselves.

We don't need radical faith. We don't need heroic faith. We need Jesus. And if that sounds naive and simple, you're welcome.

I'm tired of tips and techniques for mastering faith. I want simple. I want simply to fix my eyes on Jesus because it seems to me if someone else was able to pioneer and perfect our faith we would have been told to fix our eyes on that person. But the author of Hebrews says we are to fix our eyes on Jesus…who understands the faith he calls us to and will perfect that faith in us…because he too endured the cross. He led the way!! He has blazed the trail he asks us to follow. So even if he calls us to 'take up our cross daily, deny ourselves, and follow him' we know he will not fail…and the faith he creates in us will not either.

It's kind of like taking a business model that works in city A and recreating in city B–which has nothing of the demographic markers that city A has and expecting it to work. Or it's like trying to take a model of church growthism and recreating it in another church in another town and expecting it to work the same wonders. All are doomed to failure. Well, here's the thing: I can neither create nor perfect faith…any faith. I simply cannot be entrusted with such a task. It is, and I am, doomed to failure. And so long as I look to myself or to others or all around that faith is doomed to destruction. Only Jesus can create and perfect the sort of faith that I need in my life…the kind of faith that looks beyond the failures and deaths of this world. This kind of faith, the sort spoken of in chapter 11, is resurrection faith. It's faith in Jesus, who, "shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Faith is not perfected by ignoring what's going on around us, but rather by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus despite all that is going on around us. We fail because we try to create our own faith. We fail because we think we know what faith is and what it looks like. Do we really think self-manufactured faith will be enough to see beyond the deaths of this world? Will our own manufactured faith be enough for us to scorn family like Abraham? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to deny the pleasures of this world like Moses? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to obey God when he asks us to do something ridiculous as he did Noah? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to speak boldly the word of God in the face of death as did the prophets? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to scorn the cross for the joy set before us? Will our own manufactured faith be enough for us to run the race marked out for us?

Do you trust yourself to create and perfect that sort of faith? I don't.

Whatever else this verse teaches me, it teaches me that I absolutely cannot get by a single moment of my life apart from Jesus. And what's more? We fix our eyes on Jesus because…wait for it…because He is our reward…He is the joy set before us….He is the goal of our faith.

And if we fix our eyes on Jesus, then we know exactly where we are going and to whom we are heading. Right? If we are fixed on Jesus, then we have no confusion whatsoever about our path or our destination.

Right?

[Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.]

One of the last acts I performed as a member of Facebook was to follow a link to a blog post and read the blog post. It had something to do with Daniel 11 so I thought this would be a good thing–given that I am currently neck deep in a study of Daniel in preparation for weekly Bible school lessons and, further down the road, teaching it at a small undergraduate college nearby.

Then I got there.

I'm sure the blogger's intentions were good. Maybe not. Personally I think that if a person has to go to that much trouble to understand what Scripture is saying then the person probably has no idea what Scripture is saying. That's my opinion, but I'm pretty sure that the Bible can be understood on its own terms without the help of charts and graphs and overlays and all other such 'helpful' things. Take Daniel 11 for example which should be read closely on the heels of chapter 10 of Daniel.

Chapter 10 is a conversation between Daniel and one who 'looked like a man.' This one strengthens Daniel. Speaks to Daniel. And reveals things to Daniel. Chapter 10 is a prelude to what he says in chapter 11. It may well be helpful when reading Daniel 11 to think in big pictures instead of small pictures…that is, see the forest through the trees. There are trees and if we like it may prove a fun exercise to wander through the woods and attempt to identify all the different species of trees that we see, but there is a bigger picture in chapter 11 that the identity of one small tree cannot overshadow.

The cycle in chapter 11 goes something like this:

  • A king will rise up somewhere in the world.
  • This king will do as he pleases. He or she will do whatever necessary to gain and consolidate power for themselves.
  • This king will wreck the holy people of God.
  • This king will come to an end.

It is there. Over and over again it is there. 11:4. 11:6. 11:17-19. 11:20. 11:24. 11:26-27. 11:45. Everyone of these verses speaks to the downfall of some king who thought he was the cat's meow. Every single verse. Every king who has ever lived, every kingdom ever established on earth–all of them from the greatest to the least–comes to ruin.

It seems to me that this ought to give us pause for more than a moment. It seems to me that our reaction ought to be more in line with that of Daniel who 'trembled', who 'was overcome with anguish because of the vision,' and who 'mourned for three weeks, ate no choice food, drank no wine, and used no lotions.' I'm not sure this is our christian response when we see the world afire. Ours is typically not a response of repentance, but one of indifference. It starts with me.

I repent.

It seems to me it ought to give us pause to think about our own situation here in the United States because many Christians seem to think that somehow or other our kingdom is different. I think this is why we are fond of seeing the trees instead of the forest when we read Daniel. That is, if we can learn the true identity of the 'king of the North,' or the 'king of deception,' or the 'king of the South' as people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago then, well, think about it: if that is the only thing true about Daniel's prophecy then it must not apply to our kingdom here in the USA, right? I'm sure it's important to know about Antiochus and Alexander and Ptolemy and the rest. That's the trees.

But don't you think it's also important to know who these people are in our world? That's the forest. And it seems to me that it is far more important to see the forest just now than it is to see the trees since, of course, we are living now and not then. Don't you think it is important, right now, today, to understand the fate of every single kingdom that has ever arisen on this earth? Doesn't this help us understand why now, even now, the world is afire with death, destruction, and hatred?

I'm thinking about my allegiance to Jesus. I'm thinking about how being a citizen of the USA affects my counter-cultural identity as a citizen of heaven–a much better country (Hebrews 11:16). I'm thinking that during this Lenten season, I need to reorient my eyes, my mind, and my heart so I will be guided by three passages of Scripture.

First, Hebrews 12:2: "…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." My vision needs to be clarified. My focus needs to be fixed. If the world is afire, I need to have a steady gaze. There is a greater joy than the shame of suffering. Jesus is at the right hand of the throne of God. All the kings of the world will come and go, but Jesus remains. (Which is a key to understand the entire book of Daniel.)

Second, Romans 12:1-2: "Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to daily  offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will." My mind needs to be clear and sober. My body needs to be holy and pleasing. If the world is afire, I must be ready to endure. Giving my body and mind to Jesus every day is the best way to be ready.

Third, Mark 8:34-35: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it." I think we have to make up our minds whether or not we want to be Jesus' disciple. If we want to then Jesus tells us what being a disciple entails. Give up your life. Deny what the world tries to tell us our body needs. Take up your cross–which does not mean to simply endure the burdens and drudgery of life, although it means that as well–taking up your cross means head to Calvary with Jesus. Daily. Make the sacrifice. Daily. Give your life for something more than yourself. Lose your life for Jesus as he gave his life for you.

If the world is afire, I had better make up my mind right now whether or not I want to be Jesus' disciple. And if I want to, then here's what I had best be prepared to do and how I best plan to live. Like Rick said in Sunday evening's episode of The Walking Dead, "we are the walking dead." We are.

So this Lenten season there is a lot of turmoil in the world. There's a lot of death. There's a lot of hatred. Kings are coming; kings are going. Empires are rising; empires are falling. Look at the forest…what looms on the horizon of our own nation? What preparations are you making should this great empire we live in here in the USA be the next kingdom to collapse under the weight of its own hubris?

Fix your eyes.

Offer yourselves.

Die with Jesus.

Daily.

God bless you on your Lenten journey. Come back often for more updates and reflections on this life with Jesus.