I was in the cemetery at my grandmother’s resting place. This particular memorial park was an exclusively flat-stone only grounds, and each stone had a metal vase that you twisted out of the middle of the stone and turned over to display flowers. My aunt had tried to pull it out for Mother’s Day, but it was stuck. I was down on my hands and knees using a pocketknife trying to pry the vase free, it wasn’t budging! I look over and my daughter is on her knees with her hands folded. I asked what she is doing and she responded, “I’m praying that God will help you get the vase unstuck.” Frustrated and very sweaty, I was baffled because I was sure the good Lord had more important things on his plate than helping me turn a vase over…I mean, God doesn’t really work that way does he? When I returned to my car, I was blown away that at the very moment I was working, prying, and feeling defeated by a gravestone, my seven year old was praying.
Sometimes the things we perceive as strengths can become our most restrictive shackles to our faith. I think the ancient story of Adam and Eve plays out in us...you see, I was reminded in that moment and many others that I have chosen to feast on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moreover, I have studied the Bible and with that understanding comes the “shackle” of trusting myself to define not only if something is good or evil, but if God is likely to act or not act in a given situation. I think there is too many times where my familiarity with God through the Bible allows me to arrogantly move without an element of trust—to serve before prayer, as if God already affirms what I have decided to do.
As I reflect on this type of “faith,” I think it is why I tend to accomplish only the things I am naturally good at doing, never venturing into the unknown, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable. Those ministry opportunities or missions are just too sizable for my skills…it would take more than what I have. I believe that true faith gives LIFE (like the other tree in the garden) and often moves beyond our knowledge, skills, and experience.
Products of a fallen and broken world, I think that all of us come to God with a shackled faith of some sort. And I must admit that I like my shackles because they provide me with a way of understanding faith and they allow me to know that I am growing in faith.
Whenever I ask the question, “Does God really work that way?” I am beginning to see that question as a growth question because it is a direct attack on my knowledge and experience. When I reread the scriptures asking the question, “What does the Bible really say about this?” I see this question as a challenge to my study and the past interpretations. And when I finally take an opportunity to trust God and lean on God, when I find myself on a plane to Africa, having dinner with a stranger, opening up a Bible study, or praying that God would intervene in our heroin crisis…I realize that God is in the process of breaking my shackles and setting me free to trust him more.
We all have shackles, and God calls us anyway. As I think about what it means to live an unshackled faith, I think about the New Creation described at the end of Revelation. I think about all of the brokenness we have, all of the obstacles that make us cry to God to increase our faith, relieve our doubts, and give us greater perseverance. But there is great day coming when our faith will become sight. John says that God will, “…dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Today we battle our shackles, but we learn to trust God, to believe God, and one day our hope is to be unshackled, face to face with God Almighty, Creator of the unbroken world!
Prayer: Creator God, call us to greater works and allow us the opportunity to trust in You more and more as that great day gets closer and closer. Our desire is to be set free from the shackles that hold us back. I pray that you reveal to me the limits of my faith so that I can identify my shackles and receive healing and wholeness from You. Come Lord Jesus, so that our faith can become sight and our brokenness can be fully restored. Lord God make all things new and that includes me, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Something came along my news feed the other day proclaiming that Matthew 18:20 is one of five of the most misused verses in the New Testament by ministers. Yet, I’m not sure my father misused the passage given his particular bent that if the Bible says, and I believe it, than that settles it. Also, this verse was used as an encouragement for many evening services in which a majority of the congregation would choose not to congregate. It reads this way:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them.
It is the anthem of small church gatherings everywhere. This verse out of the Gospel reminds us that the size of the gathering doesn’t matter, and that Christ is indeed with his followers regardless of the number. However, to truly read the Bible as God’s Word and strive to take it seriously, we must consider the context of Jesus’ saying here. I other words, does this verse truly apply to evening services of the church in which only a few choose to attend?
To answer this question, we must expand our quotation to the entire passage that is broken out as a paragraph for us by those who have translated and put together our bibles. Therefore, we will look at Matthew 18:15-20:
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. 19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Immediately, we should see that this instruction from Matthew really has very little to do with church events, and much more to do with church community…that is relationships among believers. It starts off…”If another believer sins against you…” and then proceeds to lay out a plan of action. We will get to the plan in a minute, but what needs to be stressed is that when a plan of action is carried out, there will be believers who will not agree with the action taken. Yet, Jesus makes a really strong statement that we must not only understand, but use it as a barometer for what is appropriate and godly for believers to engage in. Jesus says that there is a direct correlation between what is permitted and forbidden in the church, and what is permitted and forbidden in heaven. Jesus clarifies that with a serious, “I tell you the truth.” The encouragement comes to those who are trying to restore the person back to the congregation…Jesus tells them that once these steps have been taken and there has been pain, prayer, and pastoring; The end result may or may not be to the liking of the group, but Jesus is there among them.
So when times get rough and people hurt each other and it makes an impact on the church, Jesus is there is the agreement and efforts of those who have come together to help a believer in Jesus live the Christian, or heavenly Kingdom, life. Now, As far as we have come, there is a message of grace to the leaders of the church and the victims of the offense…Jesus is there with them. One of the things that must be stressed is that that dignity and harmony of the church is prioritized over the individual in sin. Jesus message is clear, persons fall into sin, but the church must be a community that confronts sin and loves these persons back to the life of righteousness. With that point made, there is a message of grace for those who would be the offender in this scenario.
If you have sinned against a fellow believer, that believer is not given license to gossip or spread information about you…that person is to come to you and tell you what has happened. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, then they gather some of your friends to talk with you regarding the sin, notice that these friends serve as witnesses and not a firing squad. They listen to both sides of the dispute and provide counsel as to how this might be resolved. If that fails, then the whole church gathers to hear the dispute and if the matter is still unresolved, then someone could get removed from the community of believers because the last thing the church wants is a sinner who is unwilling to confess and humble themselves in the guidance and protection of the church. So, the message of grace is twofold in this plan of action; first, a person who has a problem with you is never grounds for your dismissal from the church because of arbitrary drama or hasty reaction and second, at any point there is a confession of sin then the matter is resolved because that is what Jesus asks of us is to simply own our sin.
You can imagine that those who are caught up in the middle of such disputes will question there actions and even begin to wonder about there prayers…because relationships in the church are sticky at times, and even brothers and sisters can have deep seated anger and resentment. That is why Jesus reminds those in the thick of things that He is there with them and that in their agreement they will find a pathway back to the Kingdom of God…a place where every citizen belongs, and a place that deserves our best efforts to be peacefully in community with each other.
So while I do not think that this verse applied directly to the small church crowds and should not be used as a slogan for a church group who is small thinking that they are doing the right thing by hosting small numbers. Jesus is in the large numbers too… I do think that this can be an encouragement for those who are motivated to help others in their discipleship, especially within a culture that puts much more emphasis on individual fulfillment than it does community engagement. The Kingdom of God is a church community, not an idealized individual progress plan. That can be found in other religions, but not the one Christ died for…Christ died for a group, not so he would be fulfilled, but so we together might find fulfillment through him in having a true and real relationship with God. So, where a few gather in the name of Jesus, God is present!
I was reading in Matthew 19 the other day, and I came across a confrontation Jesus had with some Pharisees. The topic at hand was divorce, which I know can be very daunting, but I want to show you an interesting thing Jesus does with these religious leaders. So, here is the text:
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
So, the Pharisees want to trap Jesus by asking him an essentially unanswerable question. (Note to church leaders and ministers…if asked this question you may want to consider what I just wrote there!) Jesus gives the standard answer, the one we all know. God’s intention is for two people to be faithfully married for a lifetime. It is interesting because I don’t know many Christian folks who would argue that marriage is a life-long commitment and that it is God’s intention that we be blessed in our marriages.
However, after Jesus gives the standard textbook answer, the Pharisees see an opportunity and throw out the name that is above every Jewish name…Moses! Then why did Moses say that we could get out of marriage?!?! And Jesus’ response also takes a page out of the story of Moses. Jesus says that Moses made an exception to God’s intent; not because God decided to be more permissive, but because of the people’s “hardness of heart.”
Hardness of Heart…Moses…where have I seen this image before? Wait, is Jesus comparing the people of God with the Pharaoh of Egypt? Pharaoh who had the hard heart and would let God bless his people and act on their behalf. Does this same condition exist among God’s people? It wasn’t a one time thing? Pharaoh destroyed his whole people with his hardness of heart, I wonder what we destroy with ours…
You see, God wants tender hearts. Marriage is a good example of a prime arena that this needs to be lived out because there are very, very few who enter into their marriage commitment without tender hearts. Yet, over time and life experience, and other factors…our hearts can turn hard against our spouses. The same could be said of our relationship with God. This is a lesson that the Pharisees refused to learn as we read through the pages of the Gospel stories. There hardness became the very core of there teachings and communal interactions. Yet for us, in our marriages, we need to stay tender toward one another and not be a closed off, hard-hearted…stubborn and self-focused. In our relationship with God, we also need to be tender so that God can do his work in us. To harden a heart is to be closed off to the movement, work, and will of God—it is to lose God’s intention.
I love how Jesus uses the story of Exodus to combat the Pharisees here, but the image is terrifying in that divorce which continues to be commonly practiced is more a condition of the heart, and less an intention of our God. But before we think that divorced people are the only hard-hearted folks, don’t lose the overall principle while pointing at the specific people! (And look at the passage that follows…understand the seriousness this discussion aroused in the disciples)
After about a week of dreary days and rain, we received about an inch of snow. My kids went out to play in it before school started that morning, and I sat, sipping coffee, with the blinds open to the back yard—enjoying the scene. There is something about the covering of snow that is just beautiful. I’m not saying that it can’t be chaotic, cancel school, and make life a mess. I remember our 30 inch storm last year. But, in my mind and heart, a fresh snowfall is a renewing sight, especially after rain and cloud cover. Snow lightens up the winter, it cleanses the ground because it looks clean and new.
A contrast is made in the Bible between light and dark. Whether it is the creator God at the very beginning separating light from darkness and calling the light “good,” or John’s depiction of Jesus as the light of the world that darkness cannot overcome. There are also images of washing that talk about someone being made clean and pure, the Bible will refer to that as being made “white as snow.” You see, sin makes things darker and God makes things lighter. It was God that hung the sun in the sky and it is God who controls the “gates” of heaven where the rain, snow, and other weather pours forth in the Old Testament. Since we just focused on the Christmas story, think about the image of a star that shines forth in the darkness in which Wise Men can follow from afar and gather around Jesus. This contrast permeates the biblical text.
Another way this appears is in passages like Ephesians 3 in which Paul says that his task in ministry is to bring to “light” the mystery of God that has been hidden. We also see this in the Gospel of John when Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night, or in the darkness. John uses this image to both tell us what time of day he came, but also to indicate the relationship he has with Jesus…Nicodemus is in the dark and he needs to be “enlightened” with the truth of God’s work through Jesus.
Ultimately we come to this; in the Bible, heaven is a place of perpetual light and at the center of this image is the very presence of God, and earth threatens to spiral into a dark and chaotic place and is an image of humanity’s choice to live in their own ways and fulfill their own wills. The narrative unfolds, and we who are enlightened by the Gospel know that God is in the process of setting up outposts of heaven on earth, dispelling darkness and chaos, and being a place of light. As imperfect as these outposts are, they are mostly referred to today as churches. Churches are these spaces in which the darkness of sin can be redeemed and dispelled, its power defeated, and light can reign bringing the presence of God to us. Remember, darkness has no fellowship with light…when we bring our sin into the light then God forgives us and the sin has no power over us (1 John 1).
So what is the point of this rambling? Sometimes I need the snow in the middle of winter to clean up the ugliness of a barren and stripped natural world, I need to be reminded of my God’s beauty and know that even in the darkest days something wonderful can happen that changes my whole outlook. That is the same reason I need the church, because I need to be in contact with the heavenly world that breaks the ugliness of a barren and stripped spiritual world. I need to be reminded of God’s presence and know that even in the midst of sin, something wonderful can happen that changes humanity’s outlook. God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
Over the past week, I was drawn to Psalm 7 in light of some events taking place across the nation. It seems that among a people who talk about love, there is a lot of assumption. It seems that we want to think the best of people, but often in the moment we try to protect ourselves to the point of causing our neighbors harm…even death. In these moments, divided by loyalties and false lines drawn in the sand, how do we even begin to take a stand for what is right, what is just, what points to a solution to the epidemic of “Me” we witness through the media far too much? Well, I tuned into an ancient song…
1 I come to you for protection, O Lord my God.
Save me from my persecutors—rescue me!
2 If you don’t, they will maul me like a lion,
tearing me to pieces with no one to rescue me.
3 O Lord my God, if I have done wrong
or am guilty of injustice,
4 if I have betrayed a friend
or plundered my enemy without cause,
5 then let my enemies capture me.
Let them trample me into the ground
and drag my honor in the dust. Interlude
6 Arise, O Lord, in anger!
Stand up against the fury of my enemies!
Wake up, my God, and bring justice!
7 Gather the nations before you.
Rule over them from on high.
8 The Lord judges the nations.
Declare me righteous, O Lord,
for I am innocent, O Most High!
9 End the evil of those who are wicked,
and defend the righteous.
For you look deep within the mind and heart,
O righteous God.
10 God is my shield,
saving those whose hearts are true and right.
11 God is an honest judge.
He is angry with the wicked every day.
12 If a person does not repent,
God will sharpen his sword;
he will bend and string his bow.
13 He will prepare his deadly weapons
and shoot his flaming arrows.
14 The wicked conceive evil;
they are pregnant with trouble
and give birth to lies.
15 They dig a deep pit to trap others,
then fall into it themselves.
16 The trouble they make for others backfires on them.
The violence they plan falls on their own heads.
17 I will thank the Lord because he is just;
I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High.
The Psalm unfolds like this:
It is my belief that we combat culture’s diseases, not through social media or taking justice into our own hands, but through worship. However, the fact that we can have a time in which people die and tragedy occurs and things happen and our worship doesn’t change to reflect what David so often does in his Psalms, our need for God in every way, shows that we have disconnected our worship with our world…hence the “leave your problems at the door and come worship the Lord” idea…a terrible one. Or worse yet, God is not to be found in our pursuit of what is right or what is just, because instead of trusting the one who transcends the world yet is fully present in it…we trust ourselves ultimately to problem-solve problems that are beyond our ability (it seems).
I am reminded of the commandments of Jesus: first, love the Lord your God and second, love your neighbor. We cannot properly engage in loving our neighbors until we have come to a place in which we understand and live in the love of God. We stand in the gap between people who think it is better to throw away God and just love people…all people equally, and people who think we should love God so much that our response should be to hate people who do things that bring God displeasure. We stand in the gap…or we should…where it is proper to love God and allow God to love us, and then as our cup is filled we move out into our community to love our neighbors.
Lord, I want to love you more, more than I ever have before because my neighbors need to be loved and I am worthless in doing that without your love in me. Search me and check my motivations, bring justice to the wicked so I am not preoccupied in a search for justice, but can be engulfed in the commands to love.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.