Thursday, August 25, 2011

True Imitation

probably not comparing the
same versions of the $5 bill
but you get the gist.
I work at a place where quite a bit of money changes hands on a daily basis. 
They call me the “money-mama.”  I’m the one responsible for making sure the employees can make change for a $100 bill on a $6 transaction first thing in the morning.  I’m the one who makes sure all the big bucks are accounted for at the end of the day, and I’m the one who gives those same big bucks a send-off to the bank vault on a daily basis.  If there is one thing I’ve learned from handling so many Benjamins, Grants, Jacksons, Hamiltons, Lincolns, and Washingtons, it’s this:

I can usually spot a counterfeit at first glance.
The authentic bills all have identical characteristics, such as color, feel, and size.  Yet they are all different.  Bills that have been in circulation for a while are more worn, some may be a bit faded, and some may have a birthday greeting or short grocery list written on them.  The brand new ones are very crisp, almost to the point of giving you a paper cut, like the brand new $5’s from the bank that no one in my office likes to count.  All the bills of the same denomination have the same value, whether they are old or new.  Side by side the bills appear the same, yet they are each unique in that they have their own distinct serial number. 
Unless you have a counterfeit.  (Why someone would go to the time and trouble just for a counterfeit $5 is hard for me to comprehend.  But I’ve seen them …) If you are not aware the $5 is a fake, you might flip when you find out it’s a phony and its value has vanished.  The bill is nothing more than an imitation.
But imitation is not always a bad thing.  Jesus told his disciples on several occasions to do what He did – make more disciples by teaching others what Jesus had taught them.  He even had a heart-to-heart with eleven of the twelve men that were with him at the Last Supper.  He made it clear to them how others would know that they were having an encounter with his disciples. 
“You must love each other, just as I have loved you. If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35, CEV)

Keep in mind that John, James, Peter, and the other eight just spent three years following Jesus.  They had a pretty solid understanding of what brand of love Jesus was talking about.  But discipleship does not stop with the first bunch of followers somebody has.  These men had a job to do – they had to teach others, and teach them to teach others, and so on and so on.  The next generation did not necessarily see Jesus in action.  So Paul took the time to make it clear to the next group of up-and-coming disciples:
“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
Another follower of Jesus who lived centuries later, John Wesley, helps his generation, and future ones, by explaining it this way: 

“Be ye therefore followers - Imitators. Of God - In forgiving and loving. O how much more honourable and more happy, to be an imitator of God, than of Homer, Virgil, or Alexander the Great!” – (John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes)

John Wesley is not talking about Homer Simpson here.  He’s talking about great thinkers, philosophers, political leaders and military conquerors.  To put it in today’s terminology, God wants us to imitate the way He (and Jesus) loves and forgives others.  Imitating God is honorable – more honorable than imitating world leaders, or athletes, or celebrities, or even other church leaders. 
Of course, you don’t want to be called out as a phony follower.  That’s where the practice of discipleship comes in.  Find a mentor – someone who is a living imitation of Christ, who learned from a mentor who himself/herself is an imitation of Christ – and learn how to imitate them.  But don’t let it stop there.  Teach someone else how to imitate the One you are striving to imitate. 

I’ll close with this story.  It goes with what I’ve been talking about, sort of.  At least I think it is amusing …
When I was in my early 20's I was invited to my best friend’s house for a small dinner party. It was her first apartment, and she was excited about cooking for company, and all that. She decided to cook Roast Beef for her guests. As I was helping her prepare the meal, something about the way she prepared the roast caught my attention. I asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to cut the ends off?”

“What?” she asked.

I repeated the question. “Aren’t you supposed to cut the ends off the roast beef?  My mom always does.”

“Why would she do that?” She looked at me as though I was a crazy person, more so than the usual "Mary, you're crazy" look. Since I've never really been a kitchen person I did not have an answer to that, and just let her continue what she was doing.

The next time my mom cooked a roast, I asked her why she cuts the ends off when she prepares it. “Well, that’s the way your Nana did it. I learned it from her.”
The next time I was at my grandmother's place I decided to get the answer once and for all to this deepest ponder of my life.  “Nana, when you used to cook roast beef, why did you always cut the ends off?  Was it to make it more tender, or to cook more evenly?”

Nana put her hand on top of mine and smiled at me. “Honey, it’s because the pan wasn’t big enough!” 

And such is the Coble School of Cooking.  The best, being imitated by the best of what's left.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Light of the world

Hong Kong's Symphony of Lights
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” - Matthew 5:14-16

A couple of months ago I decided to do an experiment. Not out of boredom, but for a purpose. It was blog writing time. Pastor Chris and I belong to a group where we blog on the same topic every week. His is; mine is The topic for that particular week was, “What is seen in the light.” My experiment was to shut off the lights and put on a blindfold, then write my post, typing blindfolded. Here are some of my reflections of my time in the absence of light.
My vision has failed me. I rely solely on my remaining senses to make sense of my world. Smell – fragrance? Odor? It’s always been here; I never noticed, never needed to notice.

Hearing? I hear the tick-toc-tic-oc of the clock on the wall behind me. The time on its face is useless to me; I cannot comprehend what the hands on the clock are saying to me.

Touch. The slight raises on the F and J keys of my keyboard assured me that I was typing words, not gibberish, on my computer, although I did have some interesting typos.

Taste? The dryness of my mouth. The taste of anxiety. Perhaps even fear.

The air in the room had a coldness to it, a coldness that ought not be present. Such is the air of being without light. Of darkness. Of self-imposed blindness.

I have spent about 30 minutes or so blindfolded. I could not see light, or what is normally seen in the light.

Then I felt a little bit brave. I moved my desk chair to the middle of the room. I spun myself around several times. After I got over the dizziness I stood up and tried to find my way in the dark. Usually I can get around my house without thinking about it, because I know what’s where. But making my way while blindfolded was not as easy as you might think. What made it hard?

I had no point of reference. I did not know where I was or which direction I was facing. Consequently, I had a heightened awareness of my surroundings because of the obstacles I could not see, such as doorways – I did not want to walk smack into a wall. I had some boxes with items going to the Goodwill around the house, some with the lid flaps hanging open. And of course the coffee table. That hurts enough when you bump into it in the light!

Without light the world around us does not make much sense. The Bible tells us in 1John 1:5, God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. And what physical light is to our physical eyes, that it allows us to understand the world around us and make our way in the world, so is God to our spiritual eyes.

God is not an “accidental” God. Everything He does has a plan and a purpose to it. We’ve all heard that before, or maybe you told it to someone else at one time or another. Quite often we hear those words at times of our lives when we have trouble even seeing God, such as when we experience severe illness. Or loss of a loved one. Or find ourselves consumed with worry, or disappointment, or guilt.

I am not saying that it was part of God’s original plan that we go through dark times. In our Wednesday night adult Bible study, we have been going through the book of Isaiah. In our studies, we have seen time and time again where God has pronounced judgment on the people of Israel and her enemies. And time and time again there are prophecies of judgment to come in the end-times. And when God hands down judgment against the people who do not follow Him, you can count on it not being a good thing. But God does not “want” to hand down these hard consequences on the people. His desire is to be in a relationship with us, God as our Abba-Father to us, His beloved children. We see evidence of that by his offer of salvation through Jesus Christ, and His grace and mercy to those who repent and turn back to Him.

But if God’s original plan is for us to be in fellowship with Him, and if God is all-powerful enough to bring down judgment on people – which he does not “want” to do because He loves His people – then certainly God is powerful enough to restrain evil in the world. So why doesn’t He? Why doesn’t God prevent bad things such as evil and disease and death from happening in the first place?

To answer that question, let’s go back to the first place.

We read in the Bible that God is love. When God created Adam and Eve, He created them in His image. This included giving them the ability to love. God also knew that love that is forced or given out of duty, and not out of a heartfelt desire, is not really love. So instead of God giving Adam and Eve a sense of “obligation” to love and obey, He gave them the “freedom” to choose to love and obey. Life lived under “freedom” gives us the ability to choose our actions, attitudes and responses to others and to God, but does not mean we are independent of them – we are still accountable for what we choose to do. If God wanted to head off evil from the beginning, he would not have given Adam and Eve the freedom to choose their responses. While it would have prevented them giving in to temptation, it would also have meant that their relationship with God would have robotic, love would have been given out of obligation, and truly would not have been love at all. For God “not” to give freedom for us to choose our responses would have been contrary to God’s very nature of being love itself.

Of course, we all know the story from there. God with His infinite love gave the first man and the first woman the freedom to eat whatever wanted, with one exception. Satan enters in, does what Satan does best. He causes Eve to doubt God, deceives Eve, Eve makes the fatal choice of doing the one thing she was told not to do, and Adam does likewise. The couple was banished from Eden into an imperfect world, a world susceptible to evil, disease, death and natural disaster from that point in time, forward. For them it was as if their world had turned instantly from the safety and familiarity of what they knew in the light, to total darkness.

The Scriptures have many references to Jesus - and the powers of evil - using the metaphor of light and darkness. Jesus says in John 3:19-21, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done hasbeen done through God.”

I brought my Nook e-book reader device from home. Some of you might be familiar with these. You can download books and read them, without having the bulk and weight of a book to carry with you or to keep on your bookshelf. Since I like to read when I eat, I have a sheet of plastic over my screen to protect it from getting damaged or scratched. As you can see, I’ve been a pretty sloppy eater lately, with all the fudge, secret sauce, salsa and donut crumbs on the screen protector. If I tried to read through all the gunk on the protector, I would not be able to see much of what is actually on the screen because the gunk is hiding what is there. In our own lives, the light we have that comes from Jesus and powered by the Holy Spirit shines brightly, but when we allow our lives to be covered with things that take our focus from God, things such as worry, guilt, gossip, addiction or sin – that’s like trying to
read a book through a dirty screen protector. The light of Jesus exposes the gunk in our lives.

So how does our gunk get removed so Jesus' light is seen through us?

You know how it is said that Jesus is the answer? This is one of those questions.

How does our gunk get removed?    JESUS!

(Good. You’re still with me.)

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” You see that? When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, not only are we no longer walking in darkness, we are no longer walking alone! This reminds me of an experience I had at a family retreat not long ago. In this exercise I had to go through a human obstacle course. There were people paired up to make different kinds of obstacles. I was supposed to do things such as go over people lying on the ground; under a “London Bridge” made by junior high school students; and through “hoops” made by a match-up of a third-grader and her grandmother. Oh, and I had to do it all with my eyes closed. But I was paired up with a guide to instruct me how to deal with each challenge.
Most of the pairs who went through the course attempted to get through each part, with people twisting and bending to get through some of the tight spaces. Some did pretty well, and some had a little trouble. Me? My guide was a wise experienced man named Bob. When we came to a very difficult obstacle, Bob did not tell me how to get through it. He simply said, “We’re not going to do that one. Walk to your left and go around it.” I never even knew what it was!

And that is how it is when we follow Jesus. We walk in the light, with Jesus as our guide, to help us through the obstacles of life. And although we may have difficulties along the way, as long as we choose to stay in the light and do not stray into the darkness, Jesus often shields us from problems that we would be unable to handle on our own.

We also have the light of life. We are told in Matthew 5:14-15, we “are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on a stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

So what does it look like for someone who walked in darkness, and was led by Jesus to come out of that darkness and let Jesus’ light of life shine through him? One example of such a life is Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of a very well-known preacher.

Tullian grew up in a loving, nurturing Christian home. All through his life, he never doubted the existence of God, never disbelieved in the authority of the Bible and the reality of Jesus and the cross. He just simply wanted to have fun and live his life the way he wanted to live it without anyone telling him what to do. His great fear was if he surrendered his life over to the Lord, God would strip him of all of the fun and excitement that this world has to offer.

When Tullian was a teenager, he was rebellious to the point where it was tearing his family apart. His parents did everything they could for him: private schools and counseling, but nothing worked. One night after an intense argument with his parents, his dad told him to leave. In fact, the argument was so heated that it frightened Tullian’s younger brother to the point where he called 9-1-1. Tullian did leave the house – in the back of a police car. As Tullian said years later in an interview, “So there I am in my mom and dad’s driveway, sitting in the back of the police car looking out the back window at my mom who is weeping, literally watching her 16-year-old son sitting in the back end of a police car getting ready to be taken away. I felt no remorse. I felt no regret. In fact I was actually happy and pleased with my achievements. I was free to live every young guy’s dream.” And for Tullian that meant surfing.

He stayed with families of friends until he got kicked out of their homes too. He dropped out of high school, worked in restaurants and construction, stole from his employers, and spent all his money - not on rent and paying bills, but on drugs, alcohol, and girls. During this time, he met a girl named Kim who became a positive influence in his life.

During his early 20’s, Tullian reconciled with his parents, and started to make some changes in his life. He was living responsibly, holding down a job, paying the bills, earning an honest living. He said, “I felt like I was stumbling through life blindfolded, without direction or understanding. Life made no sense. I decided there had to be more to who I was than what I was experiencing.” He came to his knees one night in his apartment and knew something had to change. God was making that very clear in his life.

Something else was happening in Tullian during that time. He says, “My affections started to change, and my behavior started to change. I started loving the things I use to hate and hating the things I use to love. And I started pursuing the things I use to run away from and running away from the things I use to pursue. It was then that I knew an internal revolution had taken place. I had been saved." And it was because of Jesus.

Kim had also given her life to Jesus, and later became Tullian’s wife. They were married by Tullian’s grandfather, the Reverend Billy Graham.

Tullian only had a GED, but that did not stop him from going on to seminary and graduate school. He now pastors Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His light shines bright like a city on a hill, as he shares his grandfather’s passion see all come to Jesus Christ.

He says, "I wanted to shout from the housetops to the whole world what God had done for me. I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I think about where I was 15 years ago and where God has brought me and the opportunities He’s given me to proclaim the gospel in both word and deed."

Coming out of a life of darkness is not easy to do on our own. In fact, it can only be done by following Jesus, who gives us the light of life. Once we have that light, let it shine brightly before men so that they may see our good works and give glory to God!


Sunday, August 07, 2011

Special Gifts

Gifts.  We’ve all given some, and we’ve all received some.  Birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, re-gifts.  Some of my favorite gifts to receive – and to give – are the ones given for just cause – “just ‘cause” you are loved by somebody.  Whatever the occasion, the giver usually puts some thought behind what gift he chooses for the recipient.  I know when I give a gift, whether it is a book or clothes or flowers or food, I am particularly blessed to know that the person I give it to will use it to benefit himself and/or others.

Not long ago some members of my church went through a study series on Spiritual Gifts.  In one part of the study everybody had the opportunity to take a personal Spiritual Gifts Assessment.  This assessment was a questionnaire designed to reveal some areas where God has blessed each of us individually with strengths that we can use in our lives, such as wisdom, creative ability, teaching, intercession (praying for others), healing, helping where there is a need. 

The concept of Spiritual Gifts is no “new-agey” thing.  It has been around since the days of the New Testament.  Paul talks about it in his first letter to the church of Corinth: 

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.  To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge.  The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing.  He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy.  He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit.  Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said.  It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts.  He alone decides which gift each person should have. (1Corinthians 12:7-11 NLT)

Paul is not the only apostle who has browsed the Spiritual Gifts Catalog.  Peter’s been looking in there as well:

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another.  Do you have the gift of speaking?  Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you.  Do you have the gift of helping others?  Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. (1Peter 4:10-11 NLT)

God gives us these gifts, not because it is our birthday or some other special occasion.  He gives them out of “just cause”.  And just as any giver of gifts, He gives them for us to use not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others as well. 

When I completed my Spiritual Gifts Assessment, it revealed that I had strengths in creative ability, knowledge, wisdom, and shepherding (guiding others in ministry).  Not a huge surprise to me.  In fact, the gifts God has given to you will usually coincide with things you already are somewhat good at and like to do.  Many of us use our gifts and abilities already, but do we use them to the full potential and purpose that God has in store for us?

This makes me think of a story that I was reminded of not long ago.  The story of the Eagle and the Prairie Chicken.

There once was a mother eagle who dropped her unhatched egg into the nest of a prairie chicken. After a time, the egg hatched, and the eaglet grew up fully believing that she was a prairie chicken. How could she have known any better? She copied her prairie chicken mother and siblings in all their movements. To feed herself, she scratched in the dirt for worms and grubs as all prairie chickens do. One would never know by her behavior that she was not a prairie chicken although she looked nothing like the rest of her family.

One day, while scratching for worms with the rest of the prairie chickens, she turned her eyes toward the heavens. Her heart filled with unexplainable rapture and a strange longing as she watched an eagle soar on the wind. She dared to voice her admiration of the eagle out loud to the rest of the group.

"Well, of course, we all know that the eagle soars! But you are just a prairie chicken. Prairie chickens do not fly and never will. Don't even think about it."

The eagle, who thought she was a prairie chicken, believed what was told to her. She stifled the strange longing inside of her and never let herself wonder again why she must stay on the ground with the other prairie chickens.

God created you and equipped you to soar like an eagle.  Don’t settle for believing you are not worth more than a prairie chicken life.  Use the unique gifts that your Creator has thoughtfully and purposefully chosen for you.  If you are not sure where to begin, start by taking a Spiritual Gifts Assessment.  Then find someone – for example, a pastor, a mentor, or even me – who is willing to explore the possible ways you can use those gifts to share with others in a way that will bless the One who gave them to you.  If you are interested in discovering your Spiritual Gifts, I would love to talk further with you.