Sunday, January 30, 2011

United with Christ

In South America there is a certain species of monkey called the Spider Monkey. It got its name from its long, spindly arms and legs, and the way it easily moves about from tree to tree to do its spider monkey things. The spider monkey also happens to be an important food source to the South American natives, and the natives have discovered a very easy way to capture them. They set up a simple gourd, with a hole just large enough for the monkey to stick his hand in. The natives put a particular type of nut in the gourd, and fasten it securely in a tree at sunset. Then, during the night, the spider monkey will discover the scent of food, stick his hand in the gourd, and grab the treat. It tries and tries to pull his hand out, but because he cannot remove his closed fist, and won’t let go of his prize, he is unable to escape. Come morning, the hunters return, bag the monkey, taking it captive.

In our Scripture passage this morning Paul is warning the church in Philippi against falling to the temptation of pride and self-servitude. As with many warnings in Scripture, these come with instruction of how to avoid being caught in that trap.

The first instruction Paul gives is to be united with Christ.

Often one of the first things that comes to mind when we think of being united with Christ is to share in his suffering. While it is true that as Christians we will at some point be called to give up something for the sake of the Gospel, it’s not very encouraging. In fact, it may be very humbling, even humiliating. But Christ can take the humiliating things in our lives and make them glorious!

Being united with Christ is something that brings about benefits. How often do we find comfort, compassion, tenderness, and mercy when we turn to Jesus? Even in times when we are called to give something up, even something major, for the cause of Christ, we receive His comfort. We receive His compassion. We receive the tenderness, grace and mercy.

A few years back Jim and I were dealing with the issue of debt. I’ll confess – we had been lazy with how we handled our money, and found ourselves in significant debt, a debt the equivalent of about a year’s take-home income. One day I was at the local It’s A Grind, and one of the regular customers could see that I was upset. When he came over and asked what was wrong, I opened up to him a little bit. We talked briefly about how easy it is to fall into debt, that God does not want his people being controlled by money. We talked about how even though our troubles can seem to consume us with anxiety and worry, God is greater than our troubles, and God is big enough to consume what consumes us! Through my encounter with this man, I was able to receive God’s grace and compassion and comfort.

But we don’t receive these gifts for the purpose of keeping them for ourselves. True, it feels good to rest in Jesus’ arms in times of trouble. But to leave it at that would be, well, selfish. We would only be building up ourselves, not anyone else.

What if I encountered someone going through a struggle I’ve been through in my life? There are a few options I have. Option #1 would be that I could walk on by, and play it safe. After all, why reopen an old wound? Or, option #2, I could come along side of them, tell them I’ve been there, done that, and here’s how it turned out for me, and in essence, make it all about me so I can show off my battle scars. But neither of these reflects the comfort that I have received in Christ.

2 Corinthians 1:4 gives a better way to respond: We receive comfort from God so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

Last year my friend Julie was preparing for major surgery and she admitted to me that she was afraid. I had never faced the kind of medical issues Julie was facing, and I pray that I never do. But I had been afraid before, and received comfort from Christ in the midst of that fear. Julie and I talked about her fear, what the worst outcome could be, that the outcome was in God’s hands, and that no matter what happened … Jesus loves me, this I know.

Julie may insist the comfort she received was from me. I insist it was from Jesus. And because Julie received comfort, she is united with Christ, and she is better equipped to share God’s comfort with another person going through similar circumstances. It then becomes more of what God intended, that not only are we blessed, but we become a blessing to others.

Paul continues, instructing us to do nothing out of selfish ambition. Rather, in humility, value others above ourselves, looking not to our own interests but also to the interests of others. That word “also” is very important. Paul is not implying that we ought to allow ourselves to be treated as doormats, taking care of no one but others. He is saying, however, we are not to live as though we are the only priority in life.

We have heroes in every walk of life around us, although most will deny they ever did anything great. A couple of weeks before Christmas there was an apartment fire here in Long Beach. When the firefighters responded they learned that there was a two-year-old child trapped inside, helpless to escape on his own. Being firefighters, the crew did what firefighters do – they went in to the burning building, not knowing exactly what they would find or what dangers they may face, or even where to find the child in order to hopefully find him alive and bring him to safety. But before they could do this, they had to take care of their own safety as well. If they didn’t – if they did not receive the right training, if they did not put on their own safety gear, the jacket, helmet, gloves, oxygen, etc. – their efforts would have been in vain. The life of the child, and possibly the life of one or more firefighter, would have been lost. But because these men and women looked to their own needs also, the child’s life was saved. You and I might not know their names, and they may shy away from the recognition, saying it was just part of the job. But they are heroes all the same. They look not only to their own interests, but to the interest of the child, and they will without hesitation do the same for you and for me.

In the same way constant preparation and training of these men and women fortify them in their daily jobs, our own daily actions that unite us with Christ – prayer, Bible study, fellowship – ought to not only fortify our own spiritual strength, but also be put into action to reach out to others in need of being strengthened. You and I might never be required to perform a dramatic act such as rescuing someone from a fire, but we can still be heroes, just by extending to another person the grace, comfort, compassion, we ourselves have received from Christ, and perhaps even lead them to be rescued from the fires of hell.

But who is Paul to talk about looking to the needs of others? Didn’t he spend part of his life persecuting Jesus and his followers? And who am I, for that matter, to talk to you about this? I’ll be the first to admit that if my life had a city limits sign, it would say “Welcome to the Center of the Universe. Population: (count me, myself, I) Three. Elevation: Right up there with God. (slight pause) All I need is a little bit of humility, and I’d be perfect.

It takes humility to look to the interests of others. It takes humility to remove yourself from the center of the universe and put someone else above yourself and look also to the interests of others.

In the TV series “Undercover Boss” the president or CEO of a nationally known corporation poses as a front-line worker in a radical way to reconnect with their workforce. In one episode the owner of Waste Management Company left the executive office to work as an entry-level trainee, washing out a port-a-pottys and picking up trash on the ground at a local fairground for a day, and another day worked as a garbage truck driver, with a female employee whose basic needs were not being met when it came to relieving herself on the job. In the course of each day’s work, the owner also had the opportunity to learn more about the personal life of his new mentor, and how their work impacted not only the employees’ lives, as well as the lives of their families. The purpose was not just for the executive mucky-mucks to see how “the other half” lives; it was to help improve working conditions for the employees, which in turn improved their overall lives.

In a similar way, God pulled off the ultimate “Undercover Boss” episode. Jesus – God in the flesh – voluntarily left the palaces and privileges of heaven to become one of us. He was born in poverty, in the filth of a stable. He took on the role of a no-status servant. Even though he was equal to God, Jesus was obedient to the Father’s will, even obedient to God’s will that he die on the cross, an execution that was reserved for the lowest and most reviled criminals, even though he had done nothing wrong.

But why? What drove Jesus to obedience to the point of having nails driven in his hands and feet, to death on the cross? Very few people will die to save the life of someone else. Although perhaps for a good person someone might possibly die. Every day we find ourselves trapped in our sins, and like the spider monkey or the two-year-old trapped in the fire, we are unable to rescue ourselves. He shows his love for us in this way: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Like the Undercover Boss, God chose this radical move to reconnect with us. Jesus humbled himself in this way so that our relationship with God may be restored.

God gives honor to the humble, and Jesus was no exception. God exalted Jesus to the highest place and gave him the name above every name. But Jesus didn’t go through all he did for his own glory. After all, he is Lord of lords, King of kings. He had nothing to gain from his humility and humiliation.

But we did.

If Jesus had not humbled himself and become one of us we’d be subject to a set of rules and laws intended to instill holiness in us. But because of our sinful nature we are unable to keep these laws, and as a result, can never attain holiness on our own. Our failure to keep the law only shows us how short of perfection we fall. But because Jesus traded the heavenly realms for the hill of Calvary we are the ones who gained. We gained forgiveness. We gained mercy. We gained grace, and comfort, and compassion. We gained holiness, imparted to us by Christ Himself. We gained the right to become children of God. We are co-heirs with Christ to the Kingdom of heaven and the eternal life that comes with it.

I encourage you to read the book of Philippians. When you do, you will notice that the recurring theme throughout is “joy.” As a mentor to the church in Philippi, Paul urges the Christians to make his joy complete, by being like-minded with Christ and each other, sharing the same love, and looking to the needs of others. The message is simple – JOY (J-O-Y) is made complete by serving Jesus first, then Others, then You. Amen.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I wonder, What If?

My washer and dryer have both been on the fritz of late, which means I’ve been spending some quality time at the local Laund-O-Rama. It can be an interesting place, that Laund-O-Rama. When you look around at the other patrons you can easily tell who has waited until the very last possible day to wash their clothes. I mean, where else would you see someone wearing green and orange plaid Bermuda shorts with a faded NSync t-shirt in public? For that matter, who would wear that same combination at home? Talk about your Wardrobe Malfunctions!

Stop staring! But it’s hard not to stare – I can’t help it if this person is wearing something so unnatural that it naturally draws attention to himself. His clothing combination, that sore for sighted eyes, makes me feel uncomfortable. I can’t help thinking, that could have been me if I had waited a couple of more days to do my washing!
picture by punkifunkimunki1 via

Every now and then I ponder how life might have turned out, had I made different decisions along the journey. What if I had gone to a different school? Gone out with someone else? Married someone else? What if we had never moved to Central California, or not moved back when we did? The list goes on and on.

But I think the most horrifying “What If” I have ever pondered is What if I never realized that there is a God who loves me? I’ve always known that I was loved by people – I’m just the loveable type, I guess – but what if I sensed that was not enough, that there was still something missing? I wonder what would I have tried to fill the void with? Alcohol? Drugs? A heart of Velcro that attaches itself to whomever, whenever? Become a work-a-holic, chasing the almighty dollar? In time, I’d be back to square one, back to sensing a void in my life, looking for a way to fill it. Is this all there is to life?

Praise God that He relentlessly pursues the ones He loves! Praise God that I didn’t wait longer than I did to respond to God’s tug on my heart! Had I not, had I waited even one more day than I did, I firmly believe my life would be entirely different, and not in a good way.

Life might not be all RedVines and white chocolate, even with God in control. He never promised it would be. But He does want us to come to Him and come clean. It’s not too late – even if you feel like your life has been reduced to mis-matched plaid shorts and boy-band t-shirts. He still loves you. He is still pursuing you. You don’t have to keep filling the void with things that leave you empty in the long run. If you have been feeling God tugging on your heart, stop running. Turn around respond to Him. What if you do?

Or worse, What if you don’t?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Then and Now

Millmark Ave. was a nice quiet street, a good neighborhood where you could raise a family. I remember when we first moved on Millmark, the street was about four blocks long, until the freeway went in, dividing the street. As a little girl, I knew at least the family names of everybody on our little street, where the good kids lived, which houses had the trouble-makers, and which houses the grumpy old men lived in.

I remember when a new family moved in across the street. I must have been probably around seven or so at the time – we were allowed to play unsupervised in the front yard but were not yet allowed to cross the street without permission. On one of those front-yard days, the kids in the new family were playing outside. They were a little younger than my sister and me, and they were not allowed to cross the street either. Wanting to be friends, but not wanting to get in trouble with our parents, Julie and I shouted across the street to these new neighbors, wanting to share our Lorna Doone cookies with them. Our parents came outside, wanting to know what the shouting was all about, and gave us permission to meet them, as long as we looked both ways and were very careful crossing the street. And thus began our friendship with Kim and Alan.

Kim and Alan were not the only neighbors around our age. My brother’s best neighborhood buddy was Eric, around the corner. Eric had a sister my age, but we never became friends. I don’t remember ever playing with this particular sister of Eric’s. In fact, we never wanted anything to do with each other. You might say we couldn’t stand each other. I honestly have no idea why. I wonder if we would be friends now, if we had the opportunity?

Over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to begin new friendships with people I’ve known, or at least known of, for over 30 years. These are people that I spent my high school years with, but for whatever reason never bothered to take the time to get to know. During school it was “safe” to spend breaks and lunch with your own groups. For a quiet, B average student band geek such as me, it took courage, perhaps even some sort of permission, to cross the courtyard and make friends with the athletes or cheerleaders or rebels or students whose GPA range might have been struggling. Outside of the classroom we didn’t really have anything to do with each other. No one was in the “can’t stand them” ranking, yet outside of the classroom we didn’t really have anything to do with each other.

Shortly after our class reunion last fall many of us made the commitment to be intentional about getting together more often. After all, it had been 10 years since we did anything as a class group; we didn’t want to wait another 10 years to do something again. Last weekend was one of those get-together times, an informal party at someone’s house. And at the party someone I only knew by name and face back in the day but have gotten to know better over the past few months asked me, “How come we weren’t friends back in high school?”

I believe it was God’s design that we were not friends back in the day. I really know why. You and I may have ended up being in each other’s “can’t stand them” ranking, and neither of us knowing why. But I believe that if we were friends then, we would not be the friends we need to be for each other now. Then, we needed permission to cross the street and share Lorna Doone’s. Then, the tests we had to take had to do with math and social studies and science, and we were given a letter grade to tell us how we did. Now, the math (finance), social studies (family and work), and science (medical conditions) have a significant impact on day to day life. Then, we needed permission to cross the street and share Lorna Doone’s. Now, there may be some streets we may be afraid to cross, but we know that there are friends on the other side, cheering us on in our bravery.

For everything there is a season,
a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Monday, January 10, 2011

Life is messed up

Hundreds of millions of people believe in prayer in one form or another. (I would offer some magical statistic that is easily found on the internet, but I do not have that figure available, so the estimate of hundreds of millions will have to do.) Generally speaking, we believe that through prayer God can heal the sick, comfort those who mourn, protect military personnel half a world away, guide our government officials. It seems in public times of prayer, such as during a time of prayer during a church service, these are the majority of requests. Especially pleas for God to heal the sick. Let me be clear – there is nothing wrong with lifting these requests to God for His will to be done. But for the longest time I tried to figure out why we are not bolder in our public prayer requests (and I very much include myself in this general pondering). Finally, it occurred to me …

These are prayers where there is little risk of others thinking our request is trivial or selfish. Or, there is little risk of others seeing that we have messed-up lives.

I know, I know … there are some things we pray for in our own lives that we do not want to share openly, or that we want to be selective, very selective, of whom we ask to intercede in bringing our requests before the Lord. It’s human nature – can I trust you with my darkest secrets, my deepest hurts?

Believe it or not, you can trust more people than you realize. Even though the specifics of our life experiences may be vastly different, there are enough similarities between us where we can trust one other at least a little bit. Enough common ground to ask each other to pray for more than Aunt Edna’s infected ingrown toenail.

In the book of James we are instructed to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other (James 5:16). Maybe we can trust each other enough to pray for something a little more personal. Something where the act of asking for prayer is confessing that we are not perfect, that we give in to sin, that we’ve messed up and need a Savior every day of our messed up life.

Therefore, with all that said, I propose this dare to those who feel bold. Find someone who you trust to pray with you. Confess a part of your messed-up life to them, and pray together for Jesus to add His intervention into your situation. If you do not already have someone who you can pray with, I invite you to leave a comment or send a private message to me, and I would be happy to pray with you or for you.

OK, I’m feeling bold. I’ll go first.

Many of you know that Jim and I have very recently divorced after a 20-year marriage. (That pretty much translates to “I've messed up.”) I am facing a lot of uncertainty and changes in the next few months, as many things will be happening that I wish I could avoid. Please pray for me.

Anybody else feeling bold?