Monday, September 30, 2013

Bird Food- Matthew 6:26

original photo by flickr user marfis75

I have never in my life been in a position where I was really unsure where the next meal was coming from. The greatest worry about food that I have ever really had was more about what kind of food I would have than if I would have food. I guess the only semi-real exception to that would have been my honeymoon.

Here's the cliff notes version of the story. If you are not already 25 years old and don't have a credit card, you can forget about renting a car. That's not such a big deal until you are in a villa in St. Croix with nothing in walking distance that you can get to! I spent all week begging car rental companies to let me rent a car to no avail. Amber and I lived off of peanut butter and ramen noodles for about half the week until we ran out. Then we really got desperate! To keep a long story short, we finally called enough restaurants that we found one we begged to deliver some food to us for a generous tip. That was the best pizza, fruit bowl, salad, sub sandwiches, (and I can't remember what else!) we had ever eaten!

The truth is that my worst "hunger" story was when I was on my honeymoon in the Caribbean and it ended with us feasting! I really don't think that qualifies me to speak on trusting God when so many in the world really are worried about where the money will come from to feed their children the next day.

But I do know this. When mistakes that I had made in the past really came back to haunt me and my relationships, I was laying on a hammock at my in-laws house worrying about how to fix all the things I had broken. I had done everything I knew to do, and it was completely out of my hands at that point. The damage had been done. I was sick at my stomach with regret and worry about the future. And then I looked over and saw some birds hopping on the ground and this verse came to mind. I wasn't worried about a meal; I was worried about a relationship, but the message was the same. God takes care of the birds. According to Jesus, I am more valuable than the birds. God will take care of me. That was the first time I felt peace about the situation since it had blown up months before. And guess what. God brought me through that time and has many more as well.

I love the Matthew 6:26 and I trust it. Even if I trust it from a different angle because so far I have never experienced the kind of poverty that really is concerned with basic necessities. What about you? What are you worried about? Have you done what you can about it? Are you a child of God? Then trust that your heavenly Father really is your heavenly Father!

...And as a side note with a completely different focus, but it has to be said in light of the only "food worry" story I have experienced.....Christians who are so blessed, can we please stop complaining about the food in the cafeteria or at the restaurant!? Can we please stop using the phrase "I'm starving!" when what we really mean is "I ate a light breakfast and my tummy is rumbling at 12:25"!? Can we please thank God that he has provided for us just as he provides for all of His creation. And He has provided for us to the point that we are so free from real worries that our drive to be anxious has to find stuff like how long it takes the waiter to get our food to us and which meat have I already eaten three times this week to worry about instead!

May we stop worrying altogether about the things that we call worries but that are really just complaints about blessings. And may we trust God's fatherly love and omnipotent power enough to stop worrying about the things that could legitimately be worrisome.

After all, "are you not much more valuable [to God] than [the birds]?"

Monday, September 23, 2013

Worry, worry, worry- Matthew 6:24

Last year I took a General Psychology class as a per-requisite for nursing school. One of the things discussed in the class was a thing called "Maslow's Hierarchy of needs," which is a theory of psychological development. If you want more info on it, you can check out Wikipedia's page here. Here is the gist of it: you can't progress to being motivated to growing in certain areas until you have already achieved other areas. For example, you're not really gonna care about how many friends you have until you have already obtained the basic needs of survival such as air, food, and water. Here is a visual diagram of the theory:

This concept is apparently used a lot in the nursing process because I have already heard it referred to several times in just a few weeks of classes. And it makes sense when you are prioritizing care for a patient. If someone can't probably need to work on that before working on a weight loss plan!

But even back in General Psych., I remember thinking when I first saw this pyramid that in a sense, Christianity takes the pyramid and flips it completely on its head....or at least Jesus did that even if we Christians are a little slow to follow!

You'll notice that morality is at the top of the pyramid in the self-actualization stage and food and water are at the base. In other words, we need to worry about food and water before worrying about morality. But Jesus knocks the base completely out in Matthew 6 when he talks about worry. "Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?" Well...from an evolutionary standpoint, then the answer is definitely "no." Nothing is more important that survival!

But what if this world isn't actually the most real reality?

Let me put it another way: which has more substance, a flower that blooms for a few days and then wilts away or an oak tree that can live hundreds of year? Obviously they are both real, but if you had to answer which is most real, which would you say? You would say the tree because the reality of the tree will last for hundreds more years than the reality of the flower that will be nothing more than a memory within a month or two at the most and unless it is immortalized in poetry or song or picture, that memory won't even be a memory within a year or two and definitely won't last more than a generation or three!

This world is very easy for us to see, touch, taste, smell, and feel. It feels very real to us. And it is real. But it's not all there is!!! In fact, comparatively speaking, the spiritual world is much more real because it will last, not just hundreds of years longer, but infinitely longer. And that is why life is more important than food and the body is more important than clothing. Because those things are only tools for what is truly important...the unseen things that will last forever!

We are going to look at these worries in a little more detail in the next weeks as we continue through the passage, but I want to start this week by encouraging you to think about how Jesus asks us to turn our concepts of "needs" upside down. When we teach our kids about the difference between needs and wants, we typically classify food and shelter as a need. After all, we need it to survive. But what if we as Christian parents are missing a golden opportunity to teach them from a very young age that even our "needs" like food and water and clothing are things that God will provide, but there are even more important things to our survival than those.

Do you remember the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4? Jesus stayed at the well because he was tired and his apostles went into town to get food. While they were gone was when Jesus had the incredible conversation about living water with the woman who had been married 5 times already. In that conversation he revealed to her that he was the Messiah. When the disciples came back with the food and urged him to eat. And do you know what his response was? "I have food to eat that you know nothing about" (John 4:32).

I'll let you draw your own conclusions about what exactly sustained Jesus' physical body. If you have an answer for that, I'd like to hear it. What I do know is that Jesus didn't worry about his food, he worried about the things that his body were actually purposed for...revealing to a sinful person who the Messiah was and offering living water.

May we have the same attitude and singularity of purpose in our lives and may our worry over those things that we have always viewed as "needs" take their rightful  second place in our thoughts.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Master(s) We Serve- Matthew 6:24

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

- Matthew 6:24

It's a very simple principle. There can only be one master.

To understand it, though, we have to recognize that being in service to a master doesn't look like a job we might have today where we can resign and leave the job, or leave work early if we aren't feeling good, or take 2 weeks paid vacation. The service that Jesus is referring to is that of a slave that has lost all control over his life. In a position of slavery, it is impossible to have more than one master because at some point, the two masters' orders are going to conflict. At that point, the slave would have to choose which to obey and which to disobey. "He will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other." There is no other way around it.

When it's viewed from the perspective of slavery, it is a very easy, indeed, to understand, when Jesus makes the transition to, "You cannot serve God and wealth."

But, thankfully, we don't live in a slave society any more. The masters we choose in the form of bosses are just that...the masters we choose. We demand certain rights in the work place, paid vacation, benefits, and flexible hours, or else we begin the search for a new master/ job opening. Maybe the blessing of our lack of first hand knowledge about slavery is also a curse when it comes to our Christianity because without that understanding of slavery, we seem to be able to gloss over this insight by Jesus and pretend that we can in fact serve not just two, but several masters, the greatest of which, of course, is God.

We serve the master of a good education.
We serve the masters called coaches.
We serve the master of financial peace of mind subtly called insurance and retirement plans.
We serve the master of selfishness and sloth in front of a T.V. thinly disguised as "me-time."
We serve the master of mammon (the KJV translation of "wealth" above) that is really just possessions, as we build bigger and bigger storage buildings and closets to hold all of our stuff that later gets sold in a yard sale or given to Goodwill.
We serve the master of popularity as we say what we think people want to hear.
We serve so many different masters every day.

But of course. We also serve our Master and Savior, God.

And we serve Him more than the others...or at least we try to.

That's what we tell ourselves. But Jesus knew a long time ago what that type of splintered devotion would do. It would force people claiming to be slaves to righteousness to choose at different times between God and whatever other master happens to be beckoning. Jesus knew that it is impossible to serve two masters. We have to choose.

Unfortunately, today we don't understand slavery. We pretend like we are not slaves to those things that are dividing our loyalties to God. But think back for a minute about the times you have said "no" to a prompting inside you to do something good because you feared for your physical, financial, or emotional safety. Think back in your life about the times you have said "no" to good works or to edifying the body of Christ because you had work or homework, or even your favorite show to watch. Think about the times you have given in to the temptation to gossip. Think about how much stuff you have in your closet that was used once if ever. If those things were not our masters, then we would have absolutely no problem saying no to them when their urgings differed from the urgings of the Spirit. The very fact that we were tempted by them, much less have given in to them so often, betrays the fact that our loyalties are still divided between "God and mammon."

People talk all of the time about why Christianity in America is on the decline. I think this issue is the reason. We (myself included) have too many masters when Jesus said there could only be one. It's not that those things listed above are bad things or even that they are not necessary things to think about. It's that they have become our masters. Because we have let them become our masters, we have not shown those outside the faith what it means to truly be a follower of Christ, and in many cases, we, ourselves have not learned to be followers of Christ. The result of this is a lack-luster faith that focuses on self instead of others, safety instead of faithful risky obedience, comfort instead of justice, and preference instead of deference. We have watered down the gospel call from "deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me" to "be a better person than the person next to you, punch your attendance card, and talk about going to heaven." And the call has been watered down so much that people don't like the taste of it any more. We have lost our saltiness.

I pray that I'm wrong...but I fear that I'm right as I look around the nation and as I inspect my own life. I pray that God will work a miracle and restore the saltiness to us even after we have lost our flavor because we are so watered down.

I've told you some of my masters. What are yours? If we are going to be followers of Christ, then we must all pick one and forsake all others. Will you?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Healthy Eyes, healthy body- Matthew 6:22-23

Original Picture by Flickr user Gerardofegan

According to Wikipedia, there are different kinds of blindness. Some are just legally blind. Others can only see the difference between light and dark and can generally tell the direction of the light. Still others that are completely blind have absolutely no light perception. (Wikipedia "Blindness")

I can't imagine being legally blind, much less being completely blind. There may be someone reading this who can. I have always read our passage for this week from the perspective of focus-- If you focus on darkness, then you will have darkness inside. If you focus on the light, then you will be full of light-- But today as I am looking at it in different translations, I am thinking more about the idea of the eye being "healthy."

A healthy eye is going to be able to perceive available light and translate it into meaning once those signals get to the brain. Those who have healthy eyes have no trouble seeing what the reality of the situation is in front of them. They can see where the safe and dangerous paths lie. They can see both the rewards and the punishments in front of them if they choose one direction over the other. Everything in their body is benefited by the light that has entered.

On the other hand, if someone has two unhealthy eyes that cannot perceive the light much less translate it into significant meaning that the rest of the body can benefit from, then the entire body will suffer tremendously!

I don't think we have to look around the world or even around our own lives and families too long to see the suffering that is happening constantly because of spiritual blindness. Oh, how many in the world have "unhealthy eyes" that will not allow them to see the truth of who God is and they are in light of who He is! Oh, how much darkness we live in and hear about on a daily basis!

Oh, how desperately the church today needs to adopt Paul's prayer for the Ephesians:
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.   - Eph. 1:18-19a
and pray it fervently and constantly for the people we come into contact with every day and the people on the other side of the world that are reported about in the news!

What if we viewed the ugliness that we see in the world and that hurts us and our families as a symptom of the larger problem of someone who is living in fear, uncertainty, and ignorance because they are living in absolute spiritual blindness!? And if they have lived in that their entire lives and never come into contact with the Great Physician  who alone has the power to give sight to the blind, "how great is that darkness!" After all, isn't darkness nothing more than the absence of light? There is only absolute darkness if there is absolutely no light.

I read a Christian fiction some time ago in which the protagonist who was a devoted follower of Christ and a true lover of broken people's souls asked, "why are we surprised when sinners sin?" I have not been able to shake that question from my mind and I am thankful it resurfaces when I start to get angry at someone for their wickedness and the pain they are causing others.

So then, if sinfulness is caused by spiritual blindness, then does the blind person not have any responsibility for action based on this passage? Or what about us who have "seen the light?" Does it not apply to us? First of all, I would say that even for the children of the light, we know very well that we occasionally still exhibit and experience spiritual blindness. I am thankful for the forgiveness and the grace that is constantly extended to us in those relapses. But this is where the verse needs to be put back into the context of the surrounding passages in order to know how we can work alongside God in bringing light into our lives.

The verses before talked about laying up treasure in heaven. The verses after talk about choosing which master to serve. What it boils down to is that where I choose to focus my eyes, does indeed do much to cause further blindness or further sight. Just think about what happens when you are in complete darkness for an extended period of time. It takes some time to readjust to the light. For some period of time, you are still unable to see even in the presence of light because your eyes and brain have become so adjusted to the darkness. But if you are continually exposed to light, eventually you will begin to see again.

May we recognize the "blinders" we may have over our own eyes that are preventing God's light to shine in and through us. May we have the courage to remove them even though the new light may hurt for a while. And may the darkness that we see coming out of others who are completely blind lead us to compassionately and tenderly expose them to the light that has saved us from darkness instead of leading us to contempt and avoidance.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Eternal Stock Options- Matthew 6:19-21

Let's be clear, Jesus was very clear about "denying self," and "taking up crosses," and "losing life for [his] sake." He talked about counting the cost often to his followers and sometimes it seemed like he did so for the purpose of driving some of the free loaders away.

But when you really look into what he was saying and you really understand what is going on in scripture, you start to realize that God has never scrimped on His offers of reward. The difference for the true follower of God is simply the nature of the reward.

C.S. Lewis gives the illustration of the boy making mud pies in a slum who passes up a vacation to the beach because he has no comprehension of the beach and is enjoying himself all too well with the mud pies to bother himself with the beach.

It makes perfect sense that Jesus moves from the motivation with which we practice righteousness, pray and fast (for the recognition from men, or the for the recognition of God), to a very similar statement in verses 19-21 about the differences in treasure. Once again, I am incredibly thankful that God "knows how we are formed; He knows we are but dust" (Psalm 103:13). He doesn't ask me to do something just because it is the right thing to do. He has every right to do that...He's the Almighty God. Unlike Bill Cosby, He actually does have the right to say, "I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it." Yes, He could force obedience if He wanted to. But instead, He simply tells me over and over and over again that what he has planned for me is sooo much better than anything I could ever imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9)! And when I finally trust that what He is promising is really going to happen and I start making those decisions (including the first decision to put faith in Christ), then He changes me from the inside out based on His motivations and His power instead of just my own, through His Spirit that lives in me.

It's really a simple game of "Would you rather?" 

  • Would you rather have riches for 95 years or for all of eternity?
  • Would you rather have friends who will laugh at your jokes for a week or even a few years, or a friend who will stick closer than a brother for all of eternity?
  • Would you rather "become one" with someone in thought or in deed for a fleeting pleasure over the next few minutes or hours, or experience a oneness with God that is beyond your wildest dreams?
  • Would you rather be your own master and have lots of freedom and comforts and live selfishly now, or hear the one true master say "well done, good and faithful servant...come and share your master's happiness"?
Those questions are incredibly easy to answer when they are asked like that. They are a lot harder to answer with action in the small moments and decisions that seem so benign and yet lead to the point that we choose the temporary over the eternal.

It becomes a "chicken and the egg" thing.

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Is the location of our treasure just a symptom of what kind of heart we have, or does our heart actually follow the places that we have piled up treasures?

I think the answer is yes.

That is why it is so crucial to weigh even the most seemingly benign choices about time, money, words, emotions, and relationships in the scale of the eternal versus the temporary. Will this decision add to my heavenly bank account or only to my earthly account? If the answer is the latter, then even if it doesn't seem like a big deal, then I need to stop and think about how many deposits I've already made to that account for fear that if I pile up too heart will follow right along and be trapped on the wrong side of "would you rather."

I'd rather have riches in heaven, wouldn't you? What would my life look like today if that were true? What would yours? I almost feel like God is daring us to find out.