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Peace be with you . . .

In church we say things so often it’s easy to forget they are true. More than true: some liturgical phrases have the power to change the world. Like children reciting E=Mc2 we are unaware of the power on our lips. Consider the simple greeting, “Peace be with you” and the group response, “And also with you.” It’s a simple exchange, offered and returned where God’s people gather.

Peace is a gift, ours to receive, and then ours to give. On what was perhaps the darkness night in history Jesus said to his friends, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Jesus saw the betrayal and violence that would arrive before sunrise. He saw the hopelessness of midday. He wanted to equip his friends. He offered peace, capable of overcoming troubled hearts and abject fear. His words were not a command, they were a gift. He did not offer Biblical clarity, nor strategic insight. Indeed, what he offered passed understanding. He offered something from another world. He offered the in-breaking of a kingdom characterized by righteousness, peace, and joy. On that sacramental night, the high priest gave not only bread and wine. He gave peace as well.

And yet peace is a strategy as well. Jesus trained us to offer peace: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. (Luke 10:5-6) Peace is something a disciple carries without benefit of a bag or purse. Peace is a gift we give to anyone who shows hospitality. Peace is the starting point of all ministry, the axis of the good news. Peace is tangible: it is given and received—yet peace has a mind of its own, choosing whether to stay or return.

In the Kingdom of God is peace is more than a platitude. Peace is something other than a high-minded ideal. Peace is how God equips his people. Peace is so real it can be carried and offered to others. What if the antidotes to uncertainty and fear are not knowledge and courage, but peace: freely received, and freely given?

What if peace has been God's gift to you from the very beginning, and he is waiting for you to both receive it and give it to others?

Peace be with you.

 

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Death at Work in Us; Life at Work in You

One night I had a dream about traveling with the Apostle Paul. (You can read it here.) In the dream I watched him bathe in a stream, and I saw for the first time the scars on his back. His scars were the mark of an Apostle. In fact, they authenticated his leadership in God’s church.

Later I discovered a leadership thread in one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth (a troublesome group of believers who were more impressed with smooth-talking miracle workers than humble servants of God). It starts at the very beginning of the letter:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) 

So many times I’ve heard people refer to “the God of all comfort.” They talk about God’s willingness to come close in our times of need. Comforting indeed, but Paul was actually introducing the topic of his leadership among these people. This thread in 2 Corinthians is unlike the Christian leadership writings North American Christians have produced in recent years.

A few chapters in the thread becomes clear:

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2Corinthians 4:7-12)

This passage has encouraged and comforted me for years. I have turned to it often. But in my need for consolation I missed Paul’s main point: he’s talking about himself, and those who served with him as Apostles. The “we” in this passage was Paul and his team; the “you” were the people in Corinth. And the remarkable leadership lesson comes in the final phrase: “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

It is Paul who is hard-pressed on every side, Paul who is perplexed, and Paul who persecuted and struck down. The price of his apostleship was his suffering on behalf of others. Though his earthen vessel—the jar of clay, his physical body—was cracked and weak, the life-giving presence of Jesus oozed through the leaks to the people of Corinth.

Paul wasn’t interested in sharing his personal wisdom or ideas; he simply wanted to carry the life of Jesus; Paul’s body was the vessel. The sign of his leadership was his weakened state and his reliance on Jesus to shine through, even if it meant death was at work in his body. Who knew death was such a big part of being a leader in God’s Kingdom?

Later in this same letter Paul gives us the details of what he meant by “hard pressed on every side:”

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:24-30)

These are the “momentary light afflictions” of Paul. These are the experiences to which God responded with comfort and strength. These are the result of his willingness to serve those he led. How many of us see leadership in this light?

And I wonder what the church would look like if every leader led like Paul, or his Master. This is what it means to first be a disciple, and then to make disciples. It was not simply Paul’s calling, it is ours as well.

 

 

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From Why to Who

The wisest people are not those with all the answers. Wisdom teaches us to ask the right questions. Asking the right question leads to the right answer, and the right answer is always a person—never a reason. Among the educated, the privileged, or the elite the right question seems to be Why; but among the humble, the lowly, or the disciple, asking the right question is the journey from Why to Who.

Not only are we a people of unclean lips, we have become a people of prideful questions. On the lips of the childlike, Why is a question of wonder and awe; on the lips of a grown-up Why becomes a demand for accountability. Why summons those we hold responsible before the court of our understanding. And the bigger the issue, it always ends up being God:

Why did God make this happen?

Why didn’t God intervene?

Why did God give this illness or take my loved one?

We foolishly believe that if we can understand the reasons behind an event, we will be equipped to cope with it. Yet it turns out that Why never brings comfort. Cold is the comfort and hollow the explanations of people who deal in Why-answers. We ask, Why did this have to happen—and even if we could actually receive a full accounting—it brings no comfort.

Asking Who brings the Comforter near. Why demands an answer. Who seeks a comforter. Why deals in theories, ideas and concepts. Who leads us to a Person.

Even in the middle of Apostle Paul’s most theological letter, filled with theology, explanations, and reasoning we see the importance of Who. When he despaired of his wretchedness he cried out “Who will deliver me?

Who can I turn to?

Who will deliver me?

Who will walk with me?

Deeper still, Who leads us to look beyond ourselves. After we have turned toward the Comforter, the Spirit gently urges us to become the presence of Who for others:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 

This is the heart of ministry, because it’s the heart of God, the one who simply promises, “I am with you, always.”

 

 

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13 Golden Nuggets From Psalm 73

It’s not right to discover treasure and keep it to yourself. I stumbled across Psalm 73 decades ago, and the more I’ve shared it with friends, the more it has meant to me. And not just me: in his classic commentary of the Psalms, Charles Spurgeon calls it “the narrative of a great soul battle, a spiritual Marathon, a hard and well fought field, in which the half defeated became in the end wholly victorious.”

Like diamonds resting on the surface, I’ve gathered a few gems from this encouraging Psalm. It has re-directed and revived my life more than once. I’ve memorized—and sang—more than one of these verses. 

May I suggest this? Open your Bible to Psalm 73, lay it next to this post, and follow along. After all, the inspired text is more important than my paltry observations! My great hope is you will discover more of God’s goodness in the next few minutes.

Psalm 73

Verse 1 ~ It takes purity of heart to see God's goodness. (But it is possible.)

Verses 2-3 ~ In the context of this Psalm "purity" is avoiding the trap of envy. It is a slippery slope—the worst. We think our thoughts hurt no one, but we forget what they can do to us.

Verses 4-12 ~ These words are just plain un-true: But they feel so true whenever I find myself envious of the worldly success of others. This passage is an example of how the scripture is “true” but is not urging us to adopt these ideas.

Verses 4-12 ~ Just like the note above, my depressed and hopeless heart bears witness to these words. God help my heart!

Verses13-14 ~ In this secret place of my depressed heart, it feels like obeying God is a sucker's game, filled with punishment and plagues.

Verse 15 ~ But I dare not utter these words. Speaking them out loud brings a greater harm: if I give voice to these thoughts, I will hurt my brothers and sisters. (This means that sometimes I can keep faith by simply being silent and waiting.)

Verse 16 ~ Some things are beyond the abilities of my finite brain. When I engage and embrace such questions, I oppress myself.

Verses16-17 ~ The most important things in life are not a matter of reason, but a matter of his presence.

Verses 18-20 ~ My envy is a personal slippery slope, but the slippery slope of the wicked is that they've built their lives on illusions and lies. Sooner or later the slippery slope will cause them to fall.

Verses 21-22 ~ Bitterness toward God—to have a grievance with him—turns me into a brute beast. (Beasts are ugly and crude; if I am honest I will acknowledge there are times when I have been exactly that.)

Verses 23-24 ~ But the truth, the reality of creation, is that he is always close at hand—close enough to hold my hand, whisper in my ear, and lead me to glory.

Verses 25-26 ~ Where do I set my desire? Honestly: what do I consider to be "my portion?" Consider the bounty of having the Infinite God of the universe as our portion; and the folly of substituting the finite for the Infinite.

Verses 27-28 ~ Wickedness will be destroyed. If I can hang on I'll have a new song to sing.

What a beautiful closing: “As for me, the nearness of God is my good.” This is my prayer for you, friends.

 

 

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No Longer Worthy?

“I’m no longer worthy to be called your son . . . ” You know the story, right? Jesus tells us of a returning son who tries to bargain his way back on to the family farm, mostly because he is starving. The prodigal is willing to sell his birthright for a regular job and a steady income. He was even willing to live with the shame of being that guy who “used to be” part of the family—simply to escape poverty and hunger. Thank goodness the father in the story wouldn’t even listen to the proposition.

The son may have been willing to give up his place in the family, but the father would have no such thing. “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son:” Since when did worth have anything to do with family?

Jesus told this story because the religious Grumbletonians disliked his custom of welcoming sinners and eating with them. They never imagined Jesus welcomed them as well—the Pharisees—and ate with them. They never realized that everyone Jesus welcomed was a “sinner.” Jesus never sat a table with anyone other than sinners. Jesus told the story to them, but also about them. He tells the story to us as well. It’s a story about becoming family.

The journey is always to the Father’s table. The transformation is always about becoming sons and daughters. The challenge is to see ourselves as the Father has always seen us. Whether you are coming from a far country or simply a hard day in the fields, why return to the Father’s house if you don’t plan on being a son or a daughter?

Jesus told this story to the Pharisees, those who had worked hard to keep the bargain of Moses. When we try to bargain with God we sell ourselves short: we offer our service for hire: he wants family. We want payment for services offered; he wants feasting at the long table. They were the older brothers who said, “All these years I’ve slaved for you . . .” But if the father had wanted slaves he would have bought more. Sons and daughters are born to the house.

The Father will only have us as sons or daughters. Any other plan is unacceptable to him. The patient father was willing to wait for the son to return, but the father had no patience for the idea that he would return as anything other than a son. Once a son or daughter in the Kingdom, always a son or daughter in the Kingdom. The prodigal son had an intolerable plan: the Father had no time to listen because celebration was in order.

The Storyteller is the true older brother, a model of how family rejoices in the father’s actions. He’s not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. His ministry was a family ministry: Jesus came not only to demonstrate the possibilities of being human; he came to reveal the beauties of being a son or daughter.

 

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