Are You Ready to be Changed?

Axentowicz_The_AnchoriteWhen You speak, when You move
When You do what only You can do
It changes us
It changes what we see and what we seek*

Yesterday morning in church, I had to stop and reflect on the words of this unfamiliar song. It is an invitation to God to speak to us—the humble cry of a heart wanting to hear His Voice. I understand the deep well of longing for that Voice. God often seems so distant and silent—or I just need a Word of wisdom, encouragement, guidance in the moment—and I cry out for God to speak.

What caught my heart and mind in the lines above, though, was the subtle acknowledgment of the power unleashed when God does speak. I wonder, do we really know what we’re asking for?

Truthfully, I usually don’t want God to change me, but my circumstances. I want Him to make my life easier, to tell me what to do in a situation, to make my plans and dreams reality. I am so much like the crowds who pressed in on Jesus, wanting to be healed. I want to see—what I want to see. I want to walk—to go where I want to go.

Jesus is often willing to oblige. He heals lepers who walk away without a word of thanks. He gives sight to blind men who reveled in the beauty of the creation more than in the glory of the re-Creator.

But this song acknowledges that there is so much more power in Jesus’ Word. He not only makes me see, He changes what I see. I think of Elisha’s servant (see 2 Kings 6), who awoke in the morning and saw an enemy army surrounding the house; Elisha prayed, and God opened the servant’s eyes to the fiery chariots of God’s army that stood between them.

And He changes what I seek. Instead of fulfilling my plans and dreams, God changes them. Peter, a fisherman, was cleaning his nets after a fruitless night on the sea when Jesus told him to go back out. The nets began to break with every fisher’s dream catch…and Peter was changed, walking away from the fish to follow the One who created the fish.

The Creator re-Creates; the Spirit breathes fresh breath; dry bones walk; blind eyes see; old is made new; the dead live again. Are you ready?

*”Spirit of the Living God” by Vertical Church Band

Ask, and You Shall Believe

A bit out of my routine this morning, I went to Psalm 4 instead of Jeremiah. It was a good—perhaps even God-inspired—choice. I am at amazed, challenged, and encouraged by David’s ability to cry out to God and then, with his next breath, to confidently sing the expectation that his cry has been, is, or will be heard…his petition granted.

I am so quick to quote Jesus, “ask, and you shall receive”—and to complain when I have asked but have not received. Or I’ll piously downplay any delay in the getting: maybe I’ll receive in heaven; maybe it’s not God’s will; maybe some hidden sin of mine has blocked the phone line to God.

But that’s not what David does. Consider these lines from Psalm 4 (the translation is Holman Christian Standard Bible. I have left out some lines, not to change or force some meaning, but to show the cries and the confidence. Read the full text here.):

Answer me when I call, God.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.
The Lord will hear when I call to Him.
On your bed, reflect in your heart and be still.
Trust in the Lord.
You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and new wine abound.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace, for You alone, Lord, make me live in safety.

What confidence! What peace! Reflect. Trust. Be still. I needed these words today. So much of life is uncertain, so much in upheaval. Unemployment. Impending surgery. Waiting. The past few nights my sleep has been interrupted with questions and doubts and wondering. This morning, though, I call to God and trust that he will hear—that he has heard.

This morning, I am going to ask, and though I do not know what the answer will look like—or when it will come—I am going to choose to believe that God has heard and that he will “make me live in safety.”

Ask, and you shall believe.

Rainy Days and Mondays

My apologies to the Carpenters, but I like rainy days.

Rain through WindowI spent the first half of my life in wet climates: western Canada, Germany, England, Seattle. Most of the last half has been in San Diego, with its incessant sun and persistent 70-degree weather. So when I awoke this morning to the sound of rain pouring down on the metal roof of our condo, I looked forward to cozying up on the couch in the early morning quiet, sipping my coffee, and looking out the window at the rain.

The showers from heaven nourish our parched California dirt. Four years of drought have taken their toll, even here in the temperate climes of this city tucked between beach and mountains. The raindrops remind me that God cares for us, that He won’t let us languish forever on the baked clay. Rain brings hope, life.

But as I sat in my living room, enjoying the downpour in dry comfort, my thoughts turned to others—to those for whom the rain brings not hope, but fear; not comfort, but dismal cold and struggle. I thought of the many homeless outside my walls: men and women whose best hope is to find a sheltered store entrance, at least until the library opens at ten; boys and girls whose only hope is to dry off a little before school…where they anticipate a small meal and a few hours indoors.

I think of the families living thirty miles south, in makeshift homes of plywood and leaky tarps that dot the now-muddy hillsides around Tijuana, Mexico. I’ve spent time there, helping to build new, dry, secure homes. But concrete floors and stucco walls only offer so much; they can protect from rain, but not the cold.

God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45)

I don’t enjoy the rain because I am good and just; they don’t dread it because they are evil. But if rain is to me a blessing, how might I pass on that blessing to those for whom it seems a curse? How can I serve, love, help those who look on the clouds not with hope but with fear?

I Will Be Their God…

Lake Langano SunriseI, the LORD, will make a New Covenant, not like the one I made before. I will write my instruction on their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people. They will all know me, and I will forgive and forget their sins. (from Jeremiah 31:31-34)

I’ve been reflecting lately on the New Covenant. As a pastor, it has been important to me because each time I have led my church in communion (aka the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist), I’ve read Jesus’ words: “this cup is the new covenant in My blood” (see Luke 22:20). There is something powerful, something significant there, but as a 21st century Gentile, the ancient Jewish history is easily lost on me.

The part of that new covenant that is grabbing me right now are the words in the middle:

I will be their God and they shall be my people.

I’m taking each word in turn and reflecting on its significance in the context and for me personally.

I will be their God — I, the Creator of heaven and earth, life giver and life sustainer. I, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I, Yahweh, the LORD; I AM THAT I AM. I, the I AM who appeared and revealed Myself to Moses in the wilderness. I, gracious and compassionate, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. I, both the Judge and the Forgiver of Sins. I, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah/Christ. I—and no other—will be their God.

I will be their God — I am not yet their God, as much as I want to be; they haven’t let me be their God. But I will be; one day in the future, I will be; they will let me, want me, long for me. Not yet, but one day….

I will be their God — Specifically, I will be the God of the House of Israel and the House of Jacob. In that future day when I will be their God, “they” will include Gentiles grafted into that house like a wild olive shoot grafted into an olive tree (see Romans 11:11-24). I will be the God of all those who believe in me, who worship the Christ Redeemer, who reject all other gods. i will be their God.

And they — those same ones who believe in Me—shall be My people.

And they shall be My people — they’re not yet; remember, they haven’t accepted Me yet. They’ve fought me and left me and rejected me and pretended to be me. But one day, they shall be my people.

And they shall be My people — I will claim them and adopt them and love them as my own. I will nourish them, nurture them, teach them. I will lavish my extravagant love upon them. They shall be mine, my very own, and no one else’s.

And they shall be My people — not my peoples, distinct and numerous different groups; but people…one people, one family, one body, one Church…one. Each one unique and special and a treasured possession, but still one people. My people, my children, my dearly loved ones. They shall be My people.

To one who has never known family, never known the passionate, fault-forgiving, undying love of a mother or father, these words are almost impossible to explain. It is difficult to fully grasp the hope that is laced into the words, “I will be their God and they shall be My people.” It’s a bit like trying to explain to a 20-year-old how they will know when they have met “the right one”: you will just know it.

When Jeremiah wrote God’s words the New Covenant, “I will be their God and they shall be My people,” it was still future; it was not yet.

When Jesus Christ brought the New Covenant into reality, it became now and not yet.

One day—when the time is come and The Day is upon us and Christ comes again—the New Covenant will simply be now.

And the LORD will say, “I am their God, and they are My people.” Welcome home.

We’re Not as Colorblind as We Think

Martin-Luther-King-1964-leaning-on-a-lecternSeveral months ago I read an article in Christianity Today called “Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?” The article detailed an experiment intended to gauge the level of implicit racial bias* in churches by studying how they responded to an email asking for information about the church. Emails were sent to 3,000 churches; the only difference between the requests was the name of the signer: each name suggested the writer’s ethnicity as white, black, Hispanic, or Asian. [*Implicit racial bias is made up of the stereotypes and attitudes that affect how we unconsciously think about and act toward something or someone.]

The results of the study, culled from 1,500 responses, were surprising and humbling. If you’re a church leader, you need to read the article; if you’re not, you should still read it.

I have long prided myself for my color-blindness. (That alone should have been a warning.)
After all, I’ve lived in four countries on two continents, including three months in the heart of Watts in South Central Los Angeles—on what police described as “the good end of the street with the highest crime in LA”, an area that was later decimated by riots. I went to high school with kids from more than a dozen nations. I’ve traveled throughout Europe and have spent time in Africa, Mexico, and South Korea. I dated an African-American girl while in the Air Force. I couldn’t be racist, could I?

But that article about implicit racial bias has stuck in my throat. I may not cross the street when approaching a black man on the sidewalk, but do I move my wallet to a front pocket? When I see an Arab-looking man in a public place, do I start thinking about escape routes…just in case? When I read of yet another police shooting, do I automatically assume it was justified?

About ten o’clock last night I went to the store to get Kleenex® for my sick daughter. At the only register open there was an argument between the white cashier and three black women. Though relatively calm, the customers were complaining that the cashier had been rude; she was trying to defend herself, explaining that she was simply following procedures—something about the amount of their purchase, identification, and possible identity theft.

With the argument still going on, the cashier rang up my purchase and I backed out of the line, still blocked by the upset customers. As I was leaving, a supervisor came over and tried, unsuccessfully, to explain the procedures the clerk had followed. I wondered what might have happened if the clerk had simply said, “I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me?”

The situation occupied my mind all the way home. I hoped the race card wouldn’t be pulled. I desperately wanted it not to be about race; it probably wasn’t…and at the same time, it probably was. Even if the cashier truly didn’t consider that the women were black; even if a self-checkout register would have resulted in the same ID check; in the customers’ minds, there is a race component, born out of hundreds of years of black oppression by whites.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., a day set aside to remember the slain leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, by extension, to consider the broader race situation in what politicians love to call “The Greatest Nation on Earth.” Judging by that race situation, the moniker is not well deserved. We have come far, but not too far…and certainly not far enough.

I don’t even know what “far enough” would look like, but I don’t have much hope of seeing it in my lifetime. But if we—if I—can start by becoming more aware of these implicit biases, and then try to change just one of those, maybe that’s a good start.

The apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Sometimes it seems like an impossible dream—and it is, but for those last three words: in Christ Jesus.