Living Off-Key...

I was reading through Amos recently and started to ask myself… “What’s up with these prophets?!  Let me ask you… what words come to mind when you think about the Old Testament prophets? Lighthearted? Playful? No!  They’re irritable! In chapter 3, the prophet Micah says, “Should you not know justice, you who hate good and love evil, who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones, who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin, break their bones in pieces, chop them up like meat...” Is it just me or does he seem a bit ornery?  I mean, can’t one of the prophets write a happy book?

You might even wonder, “So, why should I even read Amos & Micah,” for example? Ok… they’re in the Bible.  How awkward would it be to get to heaven and have Obadiah and Haggai walk excitedly up to you and ask, “So, how’d you like our books?” What are you gonna say? Well… they were too whiny for me?!

But, you see, there’s a reason why God chose 17 books of the bible to be the Books of the Prophets. In fact, there’s a reason why we need, perhaps more than any other generation of Christians since Pentecost, to be reading their words. And that reason might have something to do with why they seem a bit cantankerous at times.

Imagine you’re sitting in church on a Sunday morning during worship and the person sitting next to you is singing completely off key. It’s killing you… because you know what the song is supposed to sound like… and you know how far from that its become.  Well, the prophets… they knew what it was supposed to sound like… they knew what God’s intention was for the world… and they knew how far from it the world had become.

You see, the prophets were anything but hard of hearing. It was as if they were unable to miss a single note even if they wanted to. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t drown out the sin… they couldn’t ignore the injustices and all the cries of those without hope.  We read the prophets and realize that we might not have all that much in common. But what separates us from them isn’t so much the seemingly over-the-top things they said or did at times. But rather, what so often separates them from us is our ability to pretend those cries aren’t there.

Truth is, I refuse to live my life with my ears closed to the cries of the world. And yet, I wonder at times… “God, what can I do right now, right here?” And He says to me through Micah 6:8, “Craig, I’ve already shown you” “He has shown you, oh man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you.  To do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  I may not be able to fix all the problems around me let alone all the problems in the world. But I can start.  I can extend my hand tomorrow or not. I can notice… I can see and feel and hear and pray and serve… I can extend myself. Or, I can avoid and withdraw… and look the other way.

It’s simply a choice.

Dead Man Walking...

Several years ago, a judge of the Sudanese government sentenced a 27-year-old mother named Mariam Ibrahim, to a hundred lashes before being publicly hanged. Her crime is simple. Because her father’s a Muslim, her faith in Jesus violates their law of apostasy, which is punishable by death.

All she has to do is recant her faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and she could walk out of that prison. But she can’t. Jesus had given His life for her… she won’t walk away from Him now. And so, she remains shackled to a prison wall in Khartoum, Sudan with her 2-year-old son locked up in the cell with her. What’s even more horrific is that she is 8-month pregnant.

Mariam would certainly not consider herself to be any kind of hero. She’s just walking out the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 14:7-8, which says, “For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

Our sister obviously wants to see the sentence reversed and get out of that prison. But whether or not that happens, she knows that she’s ultimately tied to Jesus, not some prison wall. And because of that, Mariam has been able to experience genuine peace and joy in spite of all she’s going through.

During his own imprisonment in Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Philippi. In Philippians 4:12-13, he said, “For I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”

It seems that Mariam has learned a little of what Paul is talking about here when he said that he had learned how to be content in all circumstances… whether he had little or much; whether he was safe or in peril; whether he was hungry or satisfied. So, what was the secret? The secret was Jesus… that no matter what he had or didn’t have, he always had Jesus. And, because Jesus was more than enough for him, he was able to live a life of contentment in spite of whatever trial he might have been facing.

You see, Paul simply decided that he wasn’t going to live just to survive or to be comfortable or to be entertained or to feel secure. But rather, he was living to enjoy Jesus… to live life in the presence of One who would never leave him and whose love for him would never fail.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul puts it like this.  He says, in 2:20, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  The “life I live,” Paul says, is “no longer my own. In fact, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Sadly, our default mode in life tends to put ourselves at the center of things… where we’re living for ourselves… for our own survival, security, and pleasure.  Of course, Jesus is a part of our lives… perhaps an important part. But, in sense, we live with a “Jesus plus…” mentality. Jesus plus earthly security; Jesus plus safety; Jesus plus a significant other.

But the Christian life our God has called us to is a crucified life where Jesus is enough.  The more we resist or ignore this, the more we’ll spend our lives looking to God as some cosmic butler who seemingly exists to keep us safe and secure.  And when we don’t feel safe and secure, we start wondering, “What’s wrong with God?” that I’m not experiencing more of the “abundant life? What aren’t I experiencing more of the miraculous in my everyday life?”

In Matthew 16:24, Jesus said “Whoever wants to be My follower must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Then, just a moment later, in verse 38, Jesus said, “Whoever doesn’t take up their cross and follow Me is not worthy of me.”  Those are hard words… especially when we tend to think that our faith centers around a God spending all of His time trying to figure out how to keep us comfortable, safe, and well-entertained.

Instead, Jesus tells us, in Matthew 16:25 that “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it.”  As followers of Christ, we’re called to an utterly surrendered, crucified life… a life that is not our own.  That’s the heart of the victorious, abundant life in the Kingdom of God… to lose our lives so we can gain a far richer, far more meaningful life in Christ.

I’m reminded of a movie back in the 90s with Sean Penn called “Dead Man Walking.” That was an expression a prison warden would call out when a doomed prisoner was making his way from their cell to the electric chair.  Dead Man Walking.  Well, that’s us. And what’s so powerful about that… why that allows us to live a life of contentment even when our situation seems so dire… is that you can’t kill a dead man. You can’t offend a dead man… you can’t steal a dead man… you can’t distract a dead man.

So, let me offer this challenge to you.  Are you, like Paul, able to say, “The life I live is no longer my own… that it’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me?”  If not, would you recommit your life… every last part of your life… to our Majestic King? Because, in every way, He is worthy of it. He is worth of every ounce of our devotion… and last bit of our lives.

Responding to God's Call

Just weeks before the Nazis began their reign of terror, a respected German pastor and theologian, named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was traveling in the US as a guest lecturer.  Wherever he went, people would encourage him to remain here in the US, knowing something terrible was about to break out in Germany.  To go back to fascist Germany would be crazy, but he knew that’s what the Lord was telling him to do.

So, he boarded the very last boat from America to Germany before the war broke out… a decision that would soon cost him his life. And yet, for Bonhoeffer, it wasn’t a decision between saving his own life or going back to Germany.  It was simply a matter o following Christ no matter what road He takes you down. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his life will loose it.”  And so, he boarded that boat.

When he arrived back in Germany, he found that things were worse than he had imagined. He immediately began publicly opposing Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies and called the German church to stand against the horrific actions being perpetrated against the Jewish people.  Though he was ordered, on numerous occasions, to stop speaking in public, he continued.

Soon their last threat against him, the Nazis had discovered a money trail that started with Bonhoeffer that was being used to help Jews escape to Switzerland.  He was arrested in 1943 and was held in concentration camps until April 9th, 1945 when he was hanged.  His execution came just three weeks before the liberation of the city by the Allied forces.

Needless to say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer left behind such a legacy… not simply as a theologian and prolific writer… but as an impassioned Jesus-follower who simply chose to answer God’s call on his life.  He was so fierce in his faith… but not because of how he suffered… and, not because of the great things he did.  But rather, he was fierce because he was willing to step onto whatever path Jesus was calling him to even when he didn’t know where those paths would lead him.

The question for us, then, is “Am I ready to respond to His voice even in the face of ambiguity?”  You see, the whole realm of “hearing God’s voice” and “discovering God’s will” really starts with, “Am I ready to do anything and go anywhere for Him? 

There will be many times when, like Bonhoeffer, God will call you onto a path, without letting you know where that path will lead you… a path that might rattle your desire for security… that might draw you out of your comfort zone; A path that might cost you more than you expected to pay.  Truth is, God is asking no less of us than He asked of Dietrich Bonhoeffer… that, regardless of the cost, we would answer His call on our lives… whatever that call may be. 

And so, before you even know just what His will is… will you offer up these painfully simple words, “Yes, Lord”?

Leading with a Servant's Heart...

Rabbi Harold Kushner once wrote about a very driven pre-med student at Stanford University who dreamed of passing all his fellow-students on the way to the top of the medical field. While traveling around India after his junior year, the student met a guru who asked him…

“Don’t you see you’re poisoning your soul with this success-oriented way of life? Your idea of happiness is to stay up all night studying for an exam so you can get a better grade than your best friend. That’s your idea of happiness?! Your idea of a good marriage is not to find a woman who’ll be your soul mate, but to win the girl everybody else wants! Well, that’s not how people are supposed to live. Come and join me and my disciples in an atmosphere where we all share and love one another.”

Well, turns out, this guy was ripe for the guru’s message. So he called his parents and told them he was dropping out of school to live in a commune. Six months later, his parents got a letter from him: “Dear Mom and Dad, I know you weren’t happy about my decision to drop out of school, but I want to tell you how it’s changed me... For the first time in my life, I’m at peace. There is no competition here; There’s no trying to get ahead at someone else’s expense. This way of life is so in harmony with my inner soul that in only six months I’ve become the #2 Disciple in the entire community, and I think I can be Number One by June!”

 Sadly, I think there’s a little bit of that in all of us. In fact, it was something Jesus’ firsts disciples struggled with. In Luke 9:46, for example, we’re told that “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” In Matthew 20, the mother of James & John comes up to Jesus and asks Him if her two sons could sit on either side of Him when they all get up to heaven. Of course, that got the other disciples upset.

So, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different.” In other words… “You know how the leaders around you live for power and success. But that’s not what our community is going to look like.” “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And so, to all those fixed on resume-building, status-seeking & ladder-climbing, the Apostle Paul writes these challenging words in Philippians 2:5-7…  “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to cling to. Rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…”

Now, most commentators understand this passage to say that in spite of the fact that Jesus was God, He made Himself nothing and became a servant.  That makes sense, right? He’s God… He certainly didn’t need to become a servant. I mean, that’s one of the cool things about being God!  And yet, I think Paul is saying pretty much the opposite.  It’s not that Jesus became a servant in spite of being God, but rather, He became a servant precisely because He was God. You see, “being in the very nature God,” Jesus could do no less. It is in the very nature of God to serve. 

Jesus was clearly at the ultimate top of the proverbial ladder. Come on… He was God! But Paul says that He didn’t consider His position as God something to be grasped or clinged to.  He didn’t consider His position as a reason why He shouldn’t serve those who should, in fact, be serving Him.  And so, rather than model the kind of life that seeks to “climb the corporate ladder,” Jesus, who stands at the top of it all, climbs down the ladder to its lowest rung… not only making Himself nothing by becoming a servant, but dies a criminal’s death on a Cross. 

And so, once again, because it was in His very nature to do so… Jesus showed us and the world not only what He (as God) was like… but what He wanted His followers to look like.  Instead of stepping on others on the way to the top, we’re to put a towel over our arms and begin serving the world around us. Just as Jesus was the spitting image of the Father… we’re meant to reflect to the world around us the heart of Jesus… the heart of compassion, love, mercy, humility, forgiveness, and servanthood. And, if this is combined with a fierce missional spirit and a passion for prayer, then there’s little doubt that, as a real peacemaker, you can change the world!