When the Trees Go To…Worship?

ent

Photo taken from here (a worthwhile post to read , fellow pastors!)

For those familiar with the Lord of the Rings books and movies, the title of this post might surprise you.  You might have been expecting, “When the Trees Go to War.”   There is a scene in the 2002 movie of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Two Towers.”  The Ents are an ancient race of trees, who go to war with the wizard Saruman, who destroyed trees to build provide fuel for the fires of war.

In teaching out of Isaiah 55:1-13 this past week, I was struck by an image of trees, mountains, and hills clapping their hands and singing.  War is in the background of this picture, but it is now in the past.  Here, the trees, and mountains and hills…go to worship.

But first, let’s start at the beginning.

It’s a beautiful passage, really.

Invitation to a Feast.

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, inviting people to come to a feast.  “Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price!…delight yourself in rich food.”  This is an invitation to come to a feast without cost, and it is clear that those without money–the poor–are invited as well.  This is a gift.  Isaiah points out in the opening verses of chapter 55 that so much of what we all work for costs money.  We work to make money to buy lots of things.  And we find that none of those things last.  God says something remarkable through this passage:  that if we will do one thing, we will feast abundantly and live.

Invitation to Listen.

The feast is a different one.  Instead of just eating food and drinking water, wine, and milk, we are invited to listen to the words of God.  (Isaiah 55:2-3)

One of the things I’ve noticed about the life of trying to follow Jesus is that no one really has taught much about how we do that–listen to God.  I’ve only really read one book that addresses that topic in earnest:  Hearing God by Dallas Willard.  That was a vital book for me.  I have learned to try and listen to God speak through the stories, histories, laws, prophets’ words, songs and psalms, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, parables, and letters found in the Bible.  Sometimes, when it is a familiar passage, I find myself saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know this one.”  Occasionally when I do that, I get this gentle nudge telling me, “Slow down.  Read that again.”  When I do, I find new meaning in the words.

I’ve also learned to listen to others who teach me:  pastors through their podcasts, speakers at conferences, TED talks, reading blogs, articles, etc.  Have you ever had that experience of listening to someone, and feeling like they are speaking right to you?  I pay attention when that happens.  I usually don’t fully trust that, so I find that if God really wants to say something to me, I get the message another way.

God can use the circumstances in our lives to speak to us. God can use friends and community around us to speak to us.

I know some of this sounds pretty touchy-feely for some of you.  Let me say up front that I believe that we need to “test” these things with each other, and hold it up against what the Scriptures are saying.  I also know people have all kinds of different interpretations about what the Bible is saying–and unfortunately, the Bible has been used to endorse all kinds of wickedness.  But I’ll continue to trust that God chose to reveal His character through these ancient writings, and trust that God wants us to be in community centered on those writings so we don’t go off the deep end.

Invitation to a Different God

The next part of the passage is an invitation for the “wicked and unrighteous” to find the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness of God (Isaiah 55:6-9).  As I was studying this, I remembered that at the time of this writing, Isaiah was speaking to a people either still in exile, or just coming out of exile.  Exile was often seen as the punishment from God for not listening to God.  I don’t know what you picture God is like.  One common conception is that God always is looking to punish those that do wrong. “Cosmic policeman,” some might say.  To be clear, I believe God will make the wrong things right one day.  But here, God says that even those that are wicked and unrighteous will find themselves abundantly pardoned.  God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God is different than what we expect. That becomes abundantly clear to me when I think about people that have said something hurtful to me or maligned me in some way.  To be honest, do I think pleasant thoughts all the time about those people?  No.  But my heart is softened when I read this passage in Isaiah, and understand that God thinks about people differently than I do, and deals with us differently that we would deal with each other.

Invitation to Trust

The next part of the passage speaks of how God has ordained creation (Isaiah 55:10-11).  Snow and rain comes down to earth (some places more than others, right, Sacramento-people?), seeds respond to that water and burst to life through the ground.  In the same way that process is locked into the created order, so too does God’s word accomplish its purpose.  God speaks–it happens.  We read that in the beginning of the Bible:  “Let there be light!”  And there was light. We can trust this.

That’s why I think it is important for us in our journey of knowing God to study what God says.  I’m not saying that because it’s my job.  It’s because I know that I need to listen to messages from a true source, because it is getting hard to know what messages are true out there.  The things that call out to me that are promising me happiness and pleasure aren’t always true.  The things I think about myself aren’t always true.

Invitation to Worship

The last part of this passage (Isaiah 55:12-13) speaks to the beautiful restoration that God will accomplish.  God’s people were once led out of their home in humiliation–now they will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.  And the trees, mountains, and hills–they all go to worship, singing, clapping their hands.

There is a transformation that takes place:  thorns become cypresses; briers become myrtles.  I was reminded that in the Garden of Eden, we first learn about thorns when Adam and Eve first don’t listen to God, but listen to the evil serpent.  Thorns will infest the ground and make work hard.  But here in Isaiah, thorns are replaced by strong trees.  Briers are replaced by the beautiful myrtle–a symbol, I’m told, of life, fertility, and marriage.

It’s the trajectory we’re on, according to what God says in the Bible.  The curses will be reversed.  All creation will be renewed in a new heaven and new earth.  People from every nation, tribe and tongue will sit down at a wedding feast.  And we’ll be going to worship with the trees.

 

Advertisements

Making Gardens out of Deserts

One of the members of our church wrote to me of a friendship he has with a man, who has an eye for seeing God at work in the most unusual places.  This past summer, in the sweltering heat of late July and early August, he came across this on Interstate 5. Highway Tomato Plant

For those of you not local to Sacramento, it doesn’t rain here during the summer.  At all.  I’ve read that in order for tomato plants to bear fruit, they need approximately one inch of rain per week.  How on earth did this little tomato plant make it?

Well, I happen to believe that God loves to do this kind of thing.  Plant reminders of gardens in the midst of hard, dry places.

God loves to take deserts and make gardens.

This past week, I spoke about a passage in Isaiah 35.  It’s written, depending on what biblical scholar you read, either to a group of people about to face exile, or having already been exiled.  I read somewhere that in the days of when Isaiah was written, foreign armies would completely destroy a conquered land, stripping it bare.  Imagine that happening to your city.  One of the things that makes Sacramento unique is its trees.  It’s known as the “City of Trees,” falling in the Top 10 cities worldwide of trees per capita.  (See article here) Imagine a foreign army coming in and stripping Sacramento of all its trees.  You return home, expecting to see what you remember–trees of all shapes and sizes, lining streets and parks.  Instead, you see devastation. If you were returning home to a barren land, what would you do?

While we might not ever experience that kind of exile, we might have faced different kinds of exiles.  We might have gone away from community, friendships, or God.  We might be exiled from work due to downsizing or early retirement.  A broken marriage puts you into the foreign land of dating again.

Our times of exile can lead to new beginnings. 

Exile can lead to a beginning again.  A starting over.  A new time to plant.

The imagery of Isaiah 35 is that God will do something amazing to in the hard dry places.  Like a blooming crocus amidst burning sands.  Like the majesty of biblical places Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon.  These would all be images that Isaiah’s hearers (and later, readers) would know to mean majesty, beauty, flourishing.  Carmel, for example, literally means:  “garden-land.”

 

What are those places for you?  What are the places that bring to mind lush greenery, fertile farmland, and abundance?

The imagery that caught my eye, though, was in verses 6-7:

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert.
 The burning sand will become a pool,
    the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

A stream in the desert.  Isaiah talks of water flowing through once dry and dusty places.

zion-national-park-stream in desert

I’ve never been there, but the image above is from Zion National Park in Utah.  People who have been there have told me how marvelous it is, how breathtaking its beauty is.  I love the image here because it is a flowing stream through hard, dry, and rocky place.  But perched along the banks are these tender trees, being fed, I’m sure, by the water of the stream.

We are like those trees.  We need water.  For me, that water represents a community.  Let me explain.

How is a community like water?

A community of people that accepts you, loves you, serves you—is like quenching the thirst of our souls.  When the hard dry places of life hit us—walking into a place where we are known and loved—is like a cup of cold fresh water.

Community is also what sustains us.  We need it to survive.   Sometimes it is underground.  Supporting us.  In times of sorrow and sickness, community is what sustains us.

I’m reading a book right now by Bill Hull, about discipleship (The Complete Book of Discipleship).  Simply put, discipleship is that journey of learning from Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and being a part of what He is doing in the world.*  Hull writes that one of the conditions needed for robust discipleship is a healthy community.   A community that exudes trust, grace, humility.  Affirms one another.  And is committed to growth together.  A life following Jesus is not meant to be walked alone.  Maturity is a community project, Hull says. So a community can be that stream of water that nourishes us during those hard and dry times in our lives.  A community can be that source of growth in our lives, reminding us of what could be when we feel devastated.

It is the intention of God to grow us.  To surround us with each other, so that we might be water for each other’s dry and dusty souls. 

 

*I love that definition from Bobby Harrington, Executive Director of Discipleship.org.  

The Miraculous and the Mundane

The phone rang…

“I just had an idea, and wanted to share it with you.”  Unfortunately, in church circles, this is often how someone levels a criticism at you.  I braced myself.  But I trusted this person on the phone, so I listened.  He went on to suggest that I begin writing–perhaps just a brief synopsis of what I had spoken on the previous Sunday.  He admitted often forgetting what I had said just days before, as the demands of work, family, and the overall busyness of life drowned out a few moments of clarity on Sunday.  I breathed easier.  I took it as a compliment of sorts.  That he wanted to be reminded of the things I was saying during his week.  He mentioned often having to travel, and how others as well might be missing what is said in a given week.  That this brief synopsis might be able to continue the conversations we’re having as a community.  I agreed.

I went on to confess to him that I had once started a blog.  (As of this writing, it has been almost 18 months since I last wrote).  But I had gotten lazy with it, wondered if anyone was reading, and just needed to be disciplined again with it.  I told him that his phone call might just be what I needed to start it up again.  (Thank you!  You know who you are…)

So here we are.

To begin, ask yourself this question:  How tired are you of waiting on God?

Have you been looking for God to work in only certain ways?  Have you been looking for the miracle, when He might be doing something in the daily-ness of your life?  Or, have you given up on the miracle?  Meanwhile, could it be that God is doing exactly the thing you aren’t expecting, the thing you gave up on?

This past week, I talked about a story found in the gospel of John.  The resurrected Jesus appearing on the shore, his disciples fishing all night, catching nothing.  He tells them to put their net on the other side of the boat, and voila, net full of fish.  At this point, one of the disciples knows this is Jesus (they don’t recognize him from being 100 yards off shore).  Peter jumps out of the boat, rushes to the shore.  The rest of the disciples bring in the boat and net full of fish.  They find Jesus has already cooked them a breakfast of bread and fish over a charcoal fire.  “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.

I spoke about three of the sentences found in this story.  One spoken by Peter, one spoken by John, and one by Jesus.

“I’m going fishing.” 

Peter says this.  We don’t know why, though commentators love to speculate about what was going on in his head.  He had given up fishing for a living, followed this rabbi/teacher Jesus of Nazareth around for 3-plus years, saw him do amazing things, say powerful and provocative things.  He saw this man he called Lord arrested, flogged, and heard* he was crucified–a horrible, shameful death for a criminal. He then is there when Jesus appears to a locked roomful of disciples.  What do you do with that?

“I’m going fishing” represents all the times in our lives that we return to the thing we knew how to do when we don’t know what else to do.  When we grieve the loss of something or someone, we at some point have to return to the “normal” things of life.  We may seek out the thing that brings us comfort because we know how to do it, maybe without thinking.  None of us really know how to grieve.  We go “fishing.”

“It is the Lord.” 

John says this.  He says it when Jesus tells them to cast the net on the other side.  The disciples do this, and the net is full of fish after a night full of no fish.

A night of fishing without Jesus yields nothing; a moment of listening to Jesus yields a net full of fish. 

John recognizes that only Jesus does this kind of thing.

“It is the Lord” represents those times in our lives when we see God show up in the only way that God does.  It is so unique to our situation that we know it is Him.  He does something that reminds of a previous event or chapter in our lives.  And it is nothing short of a miracle.  It is an abundance out of nothing.  One moment–nothing.  The next–abundance.  It is the Lord doing that.

“Come and have breakfast.”

Jesus says this.  It’s a marvelous picture, really.   The God of heaven and earth in the flesh, the One who made all things, the One who suffered death and was now alive, cooking breakfast for some Galilean fishermen.  The Bible doesn’t say where Jesus got the bread or the fish.  Yes, I know he could have just spoke it all into existence. “Let there be bread and fish,” and poof! Fresh baked bread and fish.  But there is this detail of the charcoal fire in the story, and for me, that throws out that idea “Jesus makes a magic meal.”  Can you picture Jesus walking the streets early that morning?  Buying bread from someone that He knew baked it just right?  How about Him walking down to the shore?  Can you picture Jesus gathering sticks, starting the fire (how did they do that back then?), slowly stoking the fire just right to cook the fish perfectly?  Warming the bread on stones next to the fire? I can see it.

“Come and have breakfast” represents those times in our lives when God is simply inviting us to sit down, let Him provide for our daily bread.  After all, didn’t Jesus teach us to pray that?  The picture is deeper.  God inviting us to have a conversation with Him.  An unhurried conversation over a simple meal.  And those opportunities are there for us every day.  In the mundane moments of our lives.

It’s a beautiful story.  A miraculous catch of fish.  And a mundane meal.

God shows up in the both the miraculous, and the mundane.  May we have eyes to see both.

 

 

* The gospels do not record Peter as being at the cross, though some speculate he looked on from a distance based on Luke 23:49:  “But all those who knew him . . . stood at a distance, watching these things”

 

If you build it…they will have a home

It’s a variation on a line from what is now a classic 1989 movie, Field of Dreams.  Starring Kevin Costner, the story revolves around a man who is told by a voice to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn fields.  The voice tells him, “If you build it…they will come.”if-you-build-it   Since that time, I’ve heard people borrow that line for all kinds of things.  I’ve heard it as justification for building a sports stadium in a city and a new church auditorium.

But I’ve never heard it for the homeless.

Our church is getting an opportunity to be a part of something new here in our city.  A fellow pastor and friend is leading the way.  Drawing upon what places like Austin, Texas is doing (click here, and click on the video on that page), we get to be a part of a tiny house village for the homeless.  It’s called Compassion Village.  compassion_edit-1-1000x600Our friends at E49 Corporation have been bringing together engineers, lawyers, fundraisers, carpenters, contractors, and others for several months.  With the partnership of a local church, St. Paul Church of God in Christ, there is a plot of land on which up to 20 tiny homes will be placed.  I had the privilege of meeting the pastor there, Pastor Larry K. Joyner.  With pride he showed me how he has transitioned room after room in the church to store food that he and a team of people give away each week.  A building on the back of the property, once used to house foster children, will now be re-purposed into apartments and bathroom and kitchen facilities for the residents of Compassion Village.

On Sunday, April 30th, our church is changing what it does on a typical Sunday.  Instead of our usual three services, we are gathering for one service, enjoying a meal together, and then getting to work.  We’re calling it, “Rebuilding Hope: The Compassion Village Project.” Some will be building and painting the two tiny homes we have committed to build.  Others will be knitting fleece blankets and hats.  We’re inviting families to serve together, painting rocks with messages of hope on them, to line the pathways of Compassion Village. Some will travel to the site of the village to work on projects to prepare the site and re-purpose the existing building.

We’ve reached out to existing ministry partners that have been serving the homeless for years, and on that Sunday, we will help with needs they have.  We’ve learned from these friends, who have been pushing for a “housing first” model for years.  We’ve learned that 13 years ago, our city’s leaders put together a vision and plan that talked about “housing first” in order to put an end to chronic homelessness.

I love that we get to do this.  The church looking to bless the city, as that city looks to help solve the problem of housing for the homeless.  The prophet Jeremiah once said, “Build houses and live in them…seek the peace and prosperity of your city.”  The building is just beginning…

Praying Without Charade

For the last three months, our church has been studying the book of James.  These words have been hard-hitting. James has talked to us about doubt, anger, appearances, fear, ambition, selfishness, and wealth.  This quote reflects the theme well:

“This letter (James) to the leaders of the early church is incredibly significant because it pounds away at one consistent message: faith that is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.”  George Barna, Growing True Disciples.

James chooses to end the letter by talking about prayer.  Whether we find ourselves in trouble or bursting with joy, we should pray.  If we are dealing with sickness, we call upon those leaders that God has put in our lives to pray over us, and the Lord will raise us up.  When burdened with sin, we offer prayers for forgiveness.  In all parts of our lives, James is saying, we are invited to pray, and have others pray for us.

Elijah-Peter Paul Rubens

Angels Give Bread and Water to Elijah         Peter Paul Rubens 

He reminds us of the prophet Elijah, whose life and ministry can be found in I Kings 17-2 Kings 2.  Elijah was such a powerful figure in the history of God’s people that when Jesus was carrying out his ministry, many believed he was Elijah raised from the dead (Matthew 16:14). James reminds us of Elijah because his life was marked by one amazing work of God after another.  It is as if James is saying, “God has worked this way, and God does work this way.  So whether you are in trouble, happy, sick, or need to confess, ask God in prayer.”

Going back to the quote from George Barna;  “faith that is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.”  Combine that with all the situations that James mentions here.  All of life:  joy and sorrow, sickness and health, confession and forgiveness—live it all before God, asking Him for help.

Is this our first instinct?  That when things go wrong, or things are going very right, that we go to God?  Do we believe that God hears?  More than that, can we believe that God will answer our prayers? I’m reminded of the words of the hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus”:

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our every weakness, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Questions for reflection:  Where is it you need to go to God?  What aspects of your life have you been resistant to take to God in prayer?

What the book of James taught me about making money.

I will never read James 4:13-15 without smiling at the memory. I was 22 years old.  I had just finished an internship in college ministry in Boulder, Colorado.  I thought that God might be calling me to more ministry, and I needed more training.  That meant seminary, and a three-year Master’s degree. The problem was, I had a lot of student loan debt from collSeattle Skylineege.  I thought to myself, “I’ll go back to Seattle (my hometown), find a job, make as much money as I can, and pay off the debts.  Then, I could think about going to seminary.”  I told a few family members and friends my plan.

 

The thing was, I couldn’t seem to find a job that paid me a lot of money.  Instead, I found two jobs in two churches!  One was making copies at what had become a “home church” for me, University Presbyterian Church.

Folding machine I made $7 an hour, with an impressive title of “Production Coordinator.” I ran the copy machine, helped stuff the church newsletter, cut flyers, and folded the bulletins with a machine that may have been developed during World War II.  (folding machine to the left may be exaggerated for dramatic effect. I don’t recall mine being so shiny.)

The other job was as a part-time youth director for a church in the south part of Seattle.  I developed an after school program for kids in the neighborhood, most of whom had never stepped foot in a church.  At the same time, I shared a house with five other twenty-somethings, all of us committing to live out our faith in Christ, being good neighbors, and helping with the kids in the after-school program.

My original “plan” didn’t quite work out.  And it was in that year that I came across these words in James 4: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”…Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will.” I couldn’t get away from the fact at how much the words of James echoed exactly what I had said a few months earlier.  It was as if the Lord was writing to me through this letter. I learned that year that my plans should be written in pencil.  And that the Lord might have different plans.  Those experiences I had that year in those two churches and with my housemates were ones I wouldn’t replace.  And that the Lord’s will (the word literally means “wish/want”) is better than my plans.

Question for reflection: What about you? Has there been a time that your plans were replaced by the Lord’s wishes, and you’re glad they were?

“I can do it myself.”

“I can do it myself.”  It’s a phrase that we hear little children say.  They can say it in trying to tie their shoes, put on their clothes, or put away their dishes. tying-shoesWe smile as we watch these little ones begin to assert their independence.  We look upon statements like “I can do it myself” as good things, recognizing them as signs of that child growing up.  And they are good things, because growing up and maturing is part of life.  But is there a place where that statement can lead to an attitude, which leads to a way of life that might take us away from what God intends?  Can “I can do it myself” actually lead to selfishness? Because selfishness isn’t just an attitude.  It’s a belief that that centers on the “self,” and at its core, it’s a belief that says, “This will be better if I just take care of it.”  Or, it says, “I have what it takes to figure this out, and I don’t need any help.”

From an early age, we catch this idea that “doing it ourselves” is important.  Perhaps this is why ideas like humility and submission are so hard for us.  “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” James says (James 4:10).  “Submit yourselves, then, to God.” (James 4:7)  We balk at words like these.

Dallas Willard, in a speech to Wheaton College Chapel, once gave a good picture of what humility looks like.

Never pretend.  Be exactly who you are.  Share your gifts honestly, share your struggles and shortcomings honestly.

Never presume. Never presume that you should be treated in a certain way, that you are entitled.  Be who you are, where you are.

Never push. Stand for yourself, stand for God, stand for what is right…but let God do the pushing.

Willard goes on and says, “This doesn’t mean you are passive.  It means that there isn’t anything you wouldn’t undertake” because you believe that “He will lift you up.” (James 4:10)

Those three pieces of advice Willard gives are telling:  never pretend, never presume, and never push.  In the world we live in today, how hard is it to live those out?  How often do we see others pretending, presuming, and pushing?  And how often do we find ourselves doing the same thing?

James 3:13-18 ends with talking about a wisdom that is “pure, peace-loving, considerate,sandals submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” What a contrast to a life of pretending, presuming, and pushing!  Who could ever live such a life? The truth is, we probably can’t.  But we can learn, and turn, again and again, day after day, to the One who did…and someone once said they couldn’t even tie His sandals…

 

 

3 Things for a Good Life

NOW ON SALE:  “The Three Things We Need for a Good Life.”

I have always resisted “formulas.” Whether it be for things like exercise and health, or our lives of following Jesus.  I always react with skepticism when I hear a book title like “The 10 Ways to Be Happy,” or “The 5 Things Missing in Your Prayers.”  Yet I read the opening part of James 3:13-14 and it sure seems like a type of formula.  “Three Things for a Good Life.” Read those verses again.  Who is wise? Wisdom is shown by a good life, which is shown by good deeds, which comes from humility, which is born out of wisdom.  Sound a bit circular? When I write it like that, it does.  Perhaps the thought here could be rephrased like this:  Wisdom brings humility, which is our source of good works, which is evidence of a good life. It is interesting to notice that James will not let us get away with a definition of wisdom that doesn’t include action. True wisdom is reflected in how we act toward others.  And, at the heart of our action must be humility.

We first learned of this word humility in James when he was talking about anger (James 1:19-21).  The Greek word for humility is the word praǘtēs. It is defined as:  “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance. praǘtēs is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason… it is a condition of mind and heart which demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power. It is a balance born in strength of character.” (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich: Greek English Lexicon, 3rd edition).

Here is the twist.  We are all inundated with promises from books, magazines, products, and experiences, promising “the good life.” And we are drawn to them because of our own self-interest.  What Jesus offers, and what James is calling us to, is a good life that doesn’t have our ambition or self-interest at the heart.  It is a great life, but one in which our own self-importance is not king or queen.  It is a life of submitting to God, seeking the best for others.  As I’ve said before, we cannot do this without following Jesus, our model and example.  And we must rely on His Spirit, who corrects, comforts, and calls us to this great life.

Questions for reflection:  Where has your ambition and self-interest led to “disorder” (James 3:16)? Where do you need Jesus to “reorder” your ambitions?

Wisdom for Tough Times, from an Ancient Book

At our church, we’ve been preaching through the book of James.  I’ve mentioned here how amazing it would be if the news media announced (not fake news…real news), that an archaeological discovery had been made.  That a document written by a relative of Jesus of Nazareth had been found, dated just 10 years or so after Jesus’ death.   Well, that is what we have contained in all our Bibles–whether they be on our bedside tables or on our phones.

isaiah-scroll-l

We are nearly halfway through our study. And, my prayer is that this series does not remain on a shelf, along with other books of the Bible we have studied.  Rather, that Jesus will move us to reflect on these words deeply, and listen to where the Lord is calling us to be changed.

 

There are three main themes that James returns to throughout this letter.  Trials, wisdom, and riches and poverty.  These were things that James’ audience was facing, and these are the same things we face.  It is difficult to keep our eyes focused on God when we face trials.  We need wisdom and discernment, as we are faced with hundreds of decisions each day, some of which will chart our course for our lives. We see poverty all around us, and abundant wealth.  How do we use what God has given us, and how are we called to help those in need?  The three themes of James are timeless.

We entitled our series “Unshaken” because it is clear that James is pointing us to a life that is unshaken by things like difficulty, doubt, anger, or appearances.  In addition, James “shakes” us with his bold calls to action.  “Faith without works is dead,” he says.  Words like these force us to examine our individual lives of walking with Jesus, and our corporate lives as a church.  What are we doing to reflect the fact that Christ is alive in us? In Jesus’ words, how are we letting our light so shine before others, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16).

It is timely that we are studying these words.  We’ve been given an opportunity here in the city of Sacramento to partner with a number of other churches, and the E49 Corporation to help build a “tiny village” of homes for the homeless.  We will be setting aside Sunday, April 30th as a church to help construct these homes, prepare the site with landscaping, and enlist our children and seniors to help make those houses homes.  We are excited about putting our faith into action.  Here is more about the Compassion Village.compassion-village

In the final chapters of the letter, we will find James returning to these themes again.  He will tell us about two different kinds of wisdom, and where wisdom begins.  He will challenge those who seek to use wealth for personal gain.  James will give us a picture of how to endure suffering and trials.  Finally, he calls us all to believe in the power of prayer.

Written a long time ago, with words that still ring true.  May we be shaken by these bold words of James, to live lives unshaken.

Question for reflection: How has the Lord been speaking to you through these words of James?

Sign Me Up for Greatness

“I don’t want to go…”

I’ve heard these words a thousand times. Recently from my kids, expressing their displeasure at this thing called school. I’ve heard it from college students, days away from going on a short-term mission trip. I’ve said it too…a lot. I can especially remember having dinner with my family on some Tuesday nights, and I was scheduled to preach at our college ministry worship service in the next hour or so. Still, despite how I felt, I went…and I’d say 95 times out of a 100, I was glad I did.

I think God does something to us, and in us, when we serve something greater than ourselves. Overcoming our feelings, overcoming our busyness, and doing something for others has almost always done something for me. Sure, there might be times when my heart is in a place when I do something purely out of obligation or duty, and I walk away thinking I wasted my time. But that was, and is, rare. Most of the time I walk away and say, “Wow, I almost missed that.”

Now, I know that the motive should be that I want to bless others simply to bless them…not for what it does for me. But I think that Jesus knew that by encouraging us to serve, and building something into serving others that blesses us, that he would get us to get up and do it. I think of the story of Jesus talking with his disciples. The mother of James and John takes Jesus aside and asks that Jesus give them places of honor (sitting on his right and left), when he comes into his kingdom. She didn’t quite know what that kingdom would look like. Anyway, the other ten disciples get angry at James and John for their mom asking for those places of honor, maybe because they wanted those places themselves, and they didn’t think to ask first! Jesus puts all of the grumbling to rest when he says, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Did you notice what Jesus did there…he started with “Whoever would be great,” to which most of us say, “That’s me! Sign me up!” Then he throws us off by saying, “be a servant.” Makes us take a step back. But I wonder if there is a greatness that we know and feel when we live a life of serving well.  (Because Jesus said so, I’m thinking the answer is “Yes.”)

At our church we’re going through this season of looking at what it means to be a steward. That is, what does it mean to be a caretaker of the important things that God has given, and that includes our talents and time. If you’re a part of our church, we put together a flyer called “100 Ways You Can Make a Difference as a Family,” which can be found here: (in all honesty, you don’t have to do these things with a family…but it is a neat picture to think about taking kids along for the ride of serving with you). And even if you’re not a part of things here in Sacramento, you can probably adapt them to your community.

In short, serving others, with our time and talents, is a vital part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And we just might discover something great when we do.