The Descent of the Dove

Each time the spirit of God appears in scripture there seems to be a thread. It is the descent of the dove. In the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament when God’s presence shows up it is in the form of fire: the flaming torch, the burning bush, in fire and smoke, or in a pillar of fire. We see God’s special presence, the glory of God showing up as fire. Later, on the day of Pentecost, the scriptures say that “tongues of fire came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2). Here we see that because of God’s Holy Spirit, every believer is a burning bush! 

In the New Testament when the spirit of God appears there is also a thread. When we see the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism, the voice of heaven says, “this is my son, whom I love, in him I am well pleased.” Then in Romans 8:16 we read that the “spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of god.” In Galatians it says, “the Spirit cries out Abba Father.” Do you see the common thread? It seems that the job of the spirit is to come into your spirit and tell you of God’s love for you, his delight in you, and to reassure you of the fact that you are his child. This is the inner wonder of knowing God. This is the experience of knowing you are God’s beloved son or daughter. These are those moments in your life when you say, no matter what happens, I know I am in God’s loving care. It is when your spirit can sing out from the darkest valley and proclaim from the depths: “I will fear no evil for you are with me even here.” This is the unexplainable reality of an inner wonder that comes from being filled with the Spirit. 

A 17th century preacher named Thomas Goodwin gave one of the most enduring pictures of this experience of inner wonder. He said he was watching a father and son walk down the sidewalk hand in hand one day when suddenly the father scooped up his son into his arms.  The son threw his arms around his fathers neck and they embraced.  The father whispered in his son’s ear, ‘I love you so,’ and the son said, ‘ I love you dad.’ Then the father set his son down and they kept on walking hand in hand. Goodwin asks “did anything change in the relationship between the father and son in that exchange?” Legally nothing changed, formally nothing changed, but experientially the son knew his father’s love in a special way in the moments of that embrace. This is maybe the best image of being filled with the Spirit. It is experiencing our status as beloved children, it is knowing in our bodies, through our experience, and through an inner wonder that we are in fact beloved children of God. 

Nothing but love.

About That Pesky Word “Surrender”

A lot of people have trouble with the word “surrender.” Throughout my years as a pastor, whenever I talk about this idea of ‘surrendering to God,’ there is a regular theme of people asking me to clarify how that works. Like what does that really mean? One picture that might be helpful is the image of sailing. When you’re sailing, you could ask, is “being filled with the wind” an experience or a habit? Is surrendering to God an experience or a habit? Actually, it is both. Catching the wind on a sailboat is clearly an experience. Tim and I had a sailboat on Lake Dillon in Frisco for a few years, and we didn’t really know how to sail, but I vividly remember that first feeling of being seized and carried forward by a mighty power from elsewhere. But my sister’s fiance is really into sailing, and so I know from him that sailing is also a habit. If you don’t put the sails up, pull the mainsheet fast, or adjust the jib, you won’t go anywhere, even if the wind is blowing powerfully.

Sailing is the art of attentiveness & response to an external power. You rely entirely on the external power to get you anywhere. Sailors never imagine themselves to be powering the boat by their own strength. But you also have to respond attentively to whatever the wind is doing, which comes through cultivating awareness, skill, and good habits. 

Being filled with the Spirit involves the same both-and. We pursue the experience of the Holy Spirit, we want it, we desire it, we ask for it – we are looking for it like a sailor looks for the wind. We rely entirely on the Spirit’s power, rather than our own strength, to get us anywhere. AND we also develop habits. We respond attentively to what the spirit is doing in and through us. We pay attention. We develop the capacity to experience the filling of the holy spirit through awareness, skill, and practice. The ancient scriptures mention 3 habits that help us in becoming more attentive to the spirit. 

In Ephesians 5:18-21 we read, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,  always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Here we see 3 habits for catching the wind of God’s spirit. The habits simply are:

  1. Speaking words of life to each other
  2. Singing
  3. Giving thanks

It seems so simple! Almost too simple. Perhaps our educated minds seek to make it more complicated than this, more complicated than it is. Being filled with the spirit is about attuning our lives to an outside power and even a child can do it!

May you surrender to that outside power, and develop the practices that allow you to be filled with the Spirit of love – that is the Spirit of God – today.

The Universal Language of Love

It was 6 years ago this week that Tim and I were in China meeting our daughter Lyla for the first time. It was an emotion-filled day because we knew that even though it was one of the happiest days of our lives, we were fully aware that it was to be one of the most sad, confusing, heartbreaking days of hers as she left the arms of her beloved foster family and came into the arms of strangers who she had only seen via facetime singing her songs and reading her stories. We did not speak the same language. Lyla was used to hearing Mandarin, we speak English.  She was at the age where she was just beginning to learn her first few words in Chinese like GuGu (big brother) and BaBa (daddy). We needed to rely on something beyond language to connect; something that would transcend language. We needed to rely on smiles and love and hugs and food to bond and connect beyond culture and language. We needed the universal language of love. 

Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost Sunday together. It is the day when we remember how God poured out the Holy Spirit in such a way that his power and presence transcended culture and language. It is a day when we think about what it means to live in the fullness of the Spirit. What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? What does it look like to be filled with the Spirit of love? To be filled with the Spirit of God? 

I wish for you to be filled with the Spirit of love today. I pray that you might be so filled with God’s Holy Spirit that you speak the universal language of love to everyone, but especially to your enemies. I pray that you might learn that language that transcends culture, divisions, and moves beyond words to connect at the level of our human hearts. May the words of your mouth, and the meditation of your heart be an outpouring of the union that exists eternally in the Triune God. May the oneness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit surround you so strongly that it is the truth beckoning you forward in each and every interaction you have today. 

May the tongues of fire, and the wind of God fill you up today.

Pentecost Sunday

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost together. We read about it in the book of Acts, chapter 2. It is the day God sends his Holy Spirit upon the people. In truth, Pentecost existed as a celebration prior to this historic event in the life of the early church. We know this because the scriptures say, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” Pentecost comes from the word for “fifty” and it was the celebration of first fruits that came 50 days after Passover for the Jewish people. It was on this day, when the people were already gathering to partake of the first fruits of the harvest, that God chose to send his Spirit with tongues of fire. 

In the book Uncommon Ground, hip hop artist Lecrae talks about the way in which we are wired for story. Our brains have this need to make sense of our world. We need to know why things are the way that they are. So we study history, religion, and astrology because we are hardwired to want to make meaning of the world. Even if we get the story wrong, at least we have a why; we have closure in our brains. 

Every story has essential components to it. You have a protagonist, and a plot, and a problem, and a villain. You have something that is broken, and in need of repair, and you have a hero who overcomes. And what most of us do when we try to make sense of our broken world, is we look to find ways to divide the world up into good guys and bad guys. 

Usually, we decide who the good guys and the bad guys are based on behaviors, or categories, or other external markers that we use to judge one another. But what we see on Pentecost is that God’s spirit falls on everyone gathered. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:7) The tongues of fire do not just come to the “good guys” or to the priests, or the educated, or the clergy. The tongues of fire fall on men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. In this story, the one true story that explains all other stories, God is unleashing his power and presence like never before. I hope as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday together this week that we will want to be filled with God’s Spirit like we want air to breathe. I pray that we will want to be united by this power more than any other story marker that our world might offer. 

Happy Pentecost, Platt Park Church. May the wind and fire of God’s spirit be upon you in a mighty way today.

Resurrection Life

When the scriptures talk of resurrection, there is a resurrection that we wait for and a resurrection that we experience now. Those who are in Christ are baptized into his death and resurrection. So in this sense we can experience the power of the resurrection now. It is a power to endure and overcome. God, by his spirit, places this inside you. When someone is baptized they go under the water, and this is a picture of being buried with Christ in his death. When they come up out of the water it is a picture of being raised to new life. In fact the words we say when someone is baptized is “dead to sin, alive in Christ.”

This is more than just a symbol. When God’s holy spirit enters you there is a very real power that God places in you to overcome; to move from death to life. We can experience resurrection life now! And, at the same time, we know that on this side of eternity we will still struggle. But there is a day coming when we will be resurrected in glory. In other words, there is also a resurrection to come where there will no longer be pain or tears or struggle or injustice.

May we live into our resurrection life today.

The Good Shepherd

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

— John 10:11-15

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” He says, “I’m not the hired hand.” It is fascinating to think of the true shepherd and the hired hand.  It seems the hired hand is halfway offering what the sheep need. It’s like Jesus is saying there are two kinds of shepherds – one that is good, and who really cares and acts like an owner, and one who is more like a hired hand, just in it for the money, not ultimately good. 

I think if we are honest, we could say that our whole lives we are searching for a shepherd. Our entire lives we are looking for someone or something that will take care of everything. That will take care of us, that will make things right. 

We thought (or maybe we still think) our parents were to be our shepherds. Or, we got married thinking our spouse would be our shepherd. We work hard to vote in so-and-so as the next leader hoping that they will be our shepherd. Sometimes we get into a church and hope that the leaders there will be our shepherd. We hope for the one that will take care of everything in our troubled hearts and world. 

Or, for some of you who are kind of natural born leaders, you’ve maybe decided, “I’m qualified to be my own shepherd. With enough drive, experience, education and connections I can be the guide of my own life. I can take care of everything myself.”

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd, and you are the sheep.” The metaphor that scripture invites our minds to live in is this: We are sheep in desperate need of a Shepherd. No one else can be your shepherd except this one good shepherd. 

There is no father or mother love that is deep enough. There is no spousal love that compares. There is no friend love wide enough. There is no professional accomplishment, praise or acclaim that will sustain. 

Jesus says ‘I am the good shepherd. There is no one who can guide you like I can, there is no one who can provide for you like I can, there is no one who will be with you always like I am, there is nothing that can fulfill you like I can.’ Scripture is saying that this shepherd is a particularly good shepherd — one who will lay his life down for you. 

You can have other shepherds, and you will, but what you will find in the end is that every other shepherd you seek to shepherd you will somehow let you down. Your parents most likely gave you the very best that they had, most parents do.  And guess what? It still wasn’t enough. It can’t be, because the hole inside of you can only be filled by the one who created you. 

May we be shepherded by the only wise one today. 

Grumbling, Serpents & Your Gaze

There is this strange little story in the Hebrew scriptures. The children of Israel are walking through the desert and they begin to complain about the food. They hate manna. Manna was something God sent everyday. It was given to them directly, miraculously, and was a daily testament to God’s provision. Even though it was their lifeline, overtime they had come to detest it. So they are complaining. Then, into the camp comes these venomous serpents. When the serpents bite someone, the person becomes feverish with an unquenchable thirst and then they would die. When this troublesome situation comes to the people, they cry out to God and to their leader Moses and repent for their grumbling and complaining. God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole and when someone is bit and becomes sick, all they need to do is LOOK at the bronze serpent and instantly they are healed. You can read about this crazy story in Numbers 21:4-9. 

These snakes are like a physical picture of what happens inside our souls when sin sets in. The people were dying on the inside from all their grumbling, and when the serpents came along they started experiencing externally in sickness and death what they had already been experiencing internally through all their complaining. 

Just like the people were sick, we too suffer from a sickness. What is our sickness that needs healing? In one word it is sin, but often it presents as discontentment. Just like the people in the wilderness, often our sin manifests itself in complaints and grumbling. Here you have the people of God receiving all they need from God via manna everyday, but despite this daily provision and gift, they are grumbling, they are discontent, it isn’t enough. This is what sin does to us. All the way back in the garden of Eden we see human beings in paradise – it is a perfect place – but the serpent comes along and says, “this isn’t enough, God is keeping something from you.” Once the venom of the serpent’s message penetrates a soul, that soul becomes feverish with an unquenchable thirst that cannot be satisfied by anything this world offers. 

In every single one of us is a raging thirst. I only need to look inside myself to see its ongoing impact in me. Each and every time I come face to face with this raging thirst, an invitation is present. The invitation is to repent and look again to the source of my healing and wholeness. Sin makes us feverish with an unquenchable thirst and it eventually leads to death. Sometimes it seems that this raging thirst inside of us progresses faster if you experience great success in life. The more successful you are, the more quickly you become aware of this infinite vacuum inside. 

For example, there is this predictable pattern in our world when it comes to the accumulation of wealth. The progression goes like this: MORE, BETTER, DIFFERENT. When you first start earning money you get a little rush from being able to have MORE things, but then over time you don’t just want MORE stuff, you want BETTER stuff, higher quality stuff. After awhile BETTER is no longer good enough and you want DIFFERENT things — unique things, stuff that is one-of-a-kind, designer, or very rare. We all have this infinite vacuum inside and sometimes super-successful people simply see the vacuum more quickly, because they’ve attempted to fill it with so many pursuits and come to realize that even at the height of having it all, they still find an emptiness inside. Eventually (if it is not dealt with) this thirst will leave you unsatisfied and profoundly empty. We can be surrounded by the best things and still be irritable, still be discontent, still be unthankful. 

Some of Jesus’ most famous words come from John 3 where he is talking to a man named Nicodemus. While most people know John 3:16, what few people realize is that just before this famous passage, Jesus references this weird story from Numbers 21. Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Jesus is basically saying: what that bronze serpent was, I am. I became sin so that you might simply LOOK at me and be instantly healed. Jesus is saying: I took the venom of the snake so that you might have the medicine. I became sin so that you might experience healing from sin.

Just as the people looked upon the bronze serpent and were made whole, so you must look at Christ to be made whole. Wholeness is not found in the next fad diet, financial investment, or latest and greatest podcast. Our healing and our wholeness come from gazing upon the One who knew no sin yet became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God. 

May we turn our gaze upon Christ lifted up today. 

Cranky Church People

Here is why churches are sometimes full of cranky people: because churches are full of people who are trying to get closer to God. Often in trying to get closer to God, these folks are trying to be good, and trying to be moral, and trying to work hard. Basically, these are people who are trying to prove that they are holy enough to earn the favor of a holy God. 

But we do not come to God by doing everything right. In fact, that is religion. That is not the gospel of Jesus. 

Religion says “I am going to get to God through my own merit.” In other words, “I’ll get to God by doing things right.” When I don’t do things right, I will be cranky and I will try harder next time. Over and over, the cycle continues. It goes like this: try to be good, fail, feel shame, become cranky, try harder to be good. The gospel of Jesus says the only way to God is through Christ. The only way to get to God is to do it wrong and say, ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner.’

See, when we come near to a perfect, holy God, we know we are unworthy. In fact, one of the ways you know you’re getting close to the real God (and not a god of my own making) is that you do actually feel your unworthiness. I know this is not popular, but it’s true. Jesus’ solution to our feelings of unworthiness was never to say to you and I, “try harder.” His solution was to say ‘I am the only way. Surrender, submit, repent, believe, receive.’

You cannot live the Christian life; you can’t, and neither can I. Jesus never asked us to live the Christian life. Jesus is the only one who can live the Christian life! The invitation of Jesus is not to try harder, it is to die. It is an exchanged life where Christ lives his life through me. Thankfully Christ has no problem living this life, so my role is to be a surrendered vessel.

This is why the scriptures say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
May it be so. 

What is your view of God?

Sometimes I hear people say something like, “you know I like to think of God as this, ” or “I prefer to think of God like this.” Usually, they fill in the description with some sort of sentimental feeling that makes them feel good. For example, “I prefer to think of God as a tender father, or a caring brother, or a gentle shepherd, or I prefer to think of Jesus as my boyfriend”. While it might feel cozy to think of God however I wish, the real question is who is God really? If you want to know what God is like look at Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh. And while it might feel cozy and sentimental to prefer certain images of God, those are reductionistic at best if they do not embody the Jesus we meet in scripture.

Here’s a question: why would we treat God differently than we treat all of the rest of reality? For example, consider a simple reality that you face all the time. Let’s say you are driving to the mountains and the road is winding and turning and you come upon a section that curves to the left and right in front of you is a huge cliff. Do you say to yourself “I just like to think of this road as straight,” or “I prefer to see this road as having no curves?” “I just like to think of this road as straight so I don’t have to keep on turning.” Do you do that? No, that would be crazy! Rather what I do is I submit what I might like or prefer to the real, actual shape of the road. If I don’t, I drive off the cliff. In most of life, that is what you do with reality. You might not like that the road is windy, but you conform your likes to reality and you accept reality. Even if reality is disturbing you, or not what you prefer. You see that the road is windy, and you adjust the wheel of your car to conform to reality. 

So why would we treat God any different? You don’t make demands of the road, the road makes demands of you. You conform to the reality of it. That is how you live, and survive and thrive.

If we are to follow the actual Jesus of scripture, and not some modified version that we construct, then it seems to me this Jesus will regularly be disturbing us. We will feel the need to submit to a different way than the way of the world. We will have to conform to a different path than the one presented by our culture. The way of Jesus will disturb our commitments to comfort and money.  We will regularly be bumping up against our personal prejudices and social understandings of things in light of the kingdom of heaven. If you are just following a religion then you can follow the god that you make up in that religion. Usually, that god will resemble the things your culture already cares about.  This view of god can stay on your terms of comfort because you actually formed god in your own image. But if you are following Jesus you are following a person who actually lived and we can learn about and who resides in you. 

So if Jesus is never disturbing you, if he is never bothering you, if he never seems to be calling you out of your comfort zone – then it is probably worth wondering – am I following the real Jesus or just the Jesus of my own making? How do you know if your God is real or made up? Is God constantly challenging your biases and expectations? Following Jesus is like this invitation to constantly be changing your mind on things.  This is what it means to be conformed to the image of Christ from ‘one degree of glory to another’ day by day.  

“And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) Thanks be to God, what a gift!

To Live in the Kingdom of God

To live in the kingdom of God is to have God as my king, my ruler, my Lord. To live in the kingdom of God is to have all the scattered parts and pieces of me come under the Lordship of Christ. Our thoughts & feelings, actions, and desires all need to come under the rule and reign of Jesus. Thomas Aquinas taught that there are three aspects to a person: your beliefs, your actions and your affections. In other words, what you think, what you do, and what you desire.

American Christianity has a long history of focusing on right beliefs and right actions, with very little concern for the affections or the desires. The problem that can develop when you disregard affections or desires is you can end up with a nation of cultural christians. These folks may say “I believe Jesus died and rose again, I’ve invited him into my heart, and I go to church every week.” These are good, moral people with the “right” beliefs and the “right” behaviors. But if you could peel back the layers you would find stadiums full of people who wear the “christian” label but whose real desires are all wrapped up in the American dream — not the kingdom of heaven.  If you could peel back the layers you’d see where our affections truly lie — that they are all too often wrapped up in desire for power and money and fame and security and comfort. Maybe we have the right beliefs and maybe we are seeking to do the right actions, but our real affections, our real desires are far from aligned with the values of the kingdom of heaven. 

Truth comes to you and me in the person of Jesus and says these affections matter. Your desires matter. Jesus comes to us and says, I want to heal and cleanse you from the inside out so that you live with both feet in the strong and unshakable kingdom of God.