Thursday, June 30, 2011

Your Father's Heart (Part 2)—Luke 15

This story you know so well that I don't need to quote from it much. It's been mis-titled The Parable of the Prodigal Son in most Bibles. I say mis-titled because it's not really about that son. It's far more about the Father's heart, and it's told by Jesus, who knows the Father's Heart better than any, since it's His heart, too. (So in your own Bible, feel free to scratch out the prodigal son part and retitle it, The Father's Heart. Yes, you can do this, the little headings are not holy writ, merely something put there by people like us.)

Remember who's telling this story: Jesus Himself. We need not wonder whether He's got it right or what He means. He opens the story by talking about a father with two sons. Luke 15:12: And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. First off, we have this lunatic son who has the audacity to approach his father and basically say, "I can't wait until you're dead...I'm outta here now, give me my share." I wonder, how would you respond to your child coming to you like that? Right. Not well. It's crazy on so many levels. That a son would act like that, and would say it OUT LOUD! It really is crazy. But what's crazier is the next part of that verse. Dad gave it to him. Stop there a second and let that in. Dad didn't kill him. Or laugh at him. Or just brush him off. Or beat him up. Any one of which would have been appropriate. 

So here's our question again, Is the Father holding out? You have to say, NO. There's no other right answer since He in fact gives the son his inheritance, right then. But there's more....after the son blows it and is heading home....

In verse 20, it says, But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. Here's the twist, and an important one, to me. Scholars have usually maintained that the son was gone for a long time, and point to the long-suffering patience of the Father. Which is ok, really. But it's got a logic problem. Answer this: Did the Father expect things to go well for the son? Or badly? (I'll wait for your answer.........................) OK, here's the clue: if He expected things to go well, why would He await the son's return? If He figures the son will go set up a business or buy some property or cattle, get married and settle down, there's no reason to sit on the porch awaiting the return. Note that. The Father KNOWS that this is going to go very badly. Because He's waiting. He knows. And remember, it's Jesus telling the story. Now let's pause before we get to the next point. What do you think of the Father's Heart now when you realize that not only did He hand over the inheritance to an ungrateful son, but that the son would blow it all? It's even crazier than we imagined, isn't it? If you knew your child would blow the money, you surely would never hand it over. Never. Yet the Father does.

Now, back to the time issue. Is it a long time or a short one? I've always heard that it was long, but I don't think so. Let me ask you, if you've been insane before, ready to do something stupid, and got the cash to go do it as our prodigal did, how long would it take to burn through the money? I'm not thinking it's years! Maybe a month or two. More likely, a week or two. And maybe even one weekend would do it! Seriously. Because when you're going to go 'to Vegas' so to speak, you're moving at high speed, and you'll have a lot of friends until the cash is gone. Not that it matters much, but I just think it fits better logically. 

So the Father gives the money away, to a rebellious son, knowing that it will be blown, and quickly. How do you react to that? And haven't many of us acted the same way as that son? Now, when the son has blown it, horribly, embarrassingly, he realizes that there's only one place to go—home. As hard as that is, we've all been there. Most of us came to God at that exact point, when we had no where else to go. And when we return, what would we expect? Judgment, condemnation, "I told you so", or at a bare minimum, reluctant tolerance. We can stay, but barely, and it won't be fun. Right? Yet the Father runs to the son and hugs and kisses him and throws a party. Who's telling this story? Jesus. Wow. What is He revealing about our Father's heart?

One final point not to miss. Has there been even one harsh word spoken? No. Not until....the older son protests. And before we condemn him too quickly, how many of us are hard-hearted towards those who have blown up their lives and now want to come to God? Don't we think it's a wee bit unfair to those of us who have NOT blown up our lives, but just did what we were supposed to? Isn't there some part of us that identifies with the older brother? But this is where Jesus puts the harsh word out. Verse 32: ""It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” You have to listen closely to hear the condemnation, but it's there. He's saying, "You don't get it. I love him, too, and he's back from death now. Check your heart, dude." Ok, so that's a loose paraphrase. But we need to check our own hearts. The Father's heart holds nothing back! Yet ours do, all too often. We need to rejoice with Him when the broken are restored, the captives freed, the blind given sight, and not think it too unfair. After all, we were once broken, captive, and blind, too. Or could have been. Except for a Father whose heart is always for us, no matter how rebellious we are.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Your Father's Heart (Part 1)—Gen 1-3

Many of us have grown up Biblically believing that since the story is all about God, then we don't matter. The enemy deepens the wound by telling us that God doesn't care, and good, but mistaken, church teachers convince us that our hearts remain wicked and deceitful. Even after God moves in. Imagine. (If God lives in our hearts, what does it say about them? Can God live in a wicked, dark, place?) So let's take a look at God's heart towards us in two parts, the first in Genesis, the second in a story you've memorized you've heard it so many times. But we'll twist it a bit to see it more clearly.

In Gen 1:26-28: "Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness". . .
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them." (ESV)

Allow that to sink in a moment. We've read it and heard it so often that it just flows right out of us without landing in us.  We were made in His image. Now, describe God. Go ahead, you have 100,000 words. Will it be enough? For me, to keep it simple, can we call His image Glory? He is glorious, and we're made to be glorious as well. 2 Cor. 3:18 says that we're indeed being transformed day by day back into that glorious image. (Paraphrased) So we start out in His image, and we're being transformed back into it by His work now, even before we get to Heaven.

Now, what happens next? Gen. 2:8-15: And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush.  And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 

Now, let me ask you, "Does it sound like God is holding out on us in any way?" Or does it sound more like He's pouring it ALL in? It truly is lush, a paradise, and He puts Adam in it. Your Father is NOT holding out. And if in some way it did seem like He was, in the next few verses He gives Adam the freedom to eat whatever he wants except for one tree, and then proceeds to make a woman for him! Adam and God play 'create and name' with the animals. God is there. It is intimate, it is paradise.

But the story takes the bad turn, which we know too well—sin. And from then on, we stand guilty, condemned. Adam sums it well in 3:10: "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” And we've been afraid, ashamed, and hiding ever since. But how does God react? Does He come in anger? Does He slay His own creations? Does He condemn? He condemns the serpent. And He does curse the ground (not Adam!) and takes some of the joy from childbirth (yet does NOT curse Eve). But how does God really feel?

Gen 3:21-24: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Doesn't this sound more protective and caring than condemning? When your young child ruins something, and is injured, what do you do? You care for them, you try and fix the wounds, you cover them, and you make a new rule: Thou shalt not do whatever you just did! Which is what God does. He covers them with the skin of one of His creation, and then protects them by removing them far from the other tree, the Tree of Life, because even God could not suffer the consequence of their eating from that now. What was the Tree of Life? The other tree. One that they could eat from. And had they eaten from it first, we would have been eternally glorified and clean. But after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and now being sin-stained, eating from the Tree of Life would mean eternal condemnation in the fallen state. Unthinkable! So just as you might sell the house next to the interstate after your child wandered near it, God closed off the garden so that no man would return, until Revelation 22:2 where it reappears.
Again, what is your Father's heart toward you? Do you see it differently now? On to Part 2.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Story

I've been a Christ follower since 1981, but the biggest change in my life occurred in the Spring of 2005, on a mountain near Jasper, GA. I'd spent 23+ years 'doing' the Christian life, trying to be good, or better, anyway, repenting of sin and working at becoming all that God intended for me—an obedient and fruitful Christian man. The trouble was that it wasn't working.

Like most men, I've had an addiction. Mine started in the 4th grade and had burned without boundaries, even into my Christian life. I couldn't control it, and frankly, most of the time, didn't want to. Why do we sin? Because it's fun. It feels good. It fills holes in our soul that we don't know how to fill any other way. It covers wounds, and brings us relief. It's medication. We all have one, and if it's not Jesus, it's the wrong one. Call it an addiction. We're all addicted to something.

I got to the point where my Christian life and my 'dark of the night' life were no longer living happily together. I was being blessed and used by God in amazing ways. Doors kept opening, I kept leading new and greater things, and told the good news of what Jesus can do in our lives. While I was in chains, addicted, with a monster in my life that I could not control and who would not leave. I felt powerless, hopeless, wondering at times if I was even saved, or so self-deceived that I didn't even know what was real and true and what wasn't. Perhaps I was merely pretending.

It all came to a head when my constant companion wife got derailed by a dear friends' tragedy, who was a co-worker as well. She suddenly had to wrap her life around this other friend AND carry a load at work that was beyond human capacity. So I lost my wife for over 4 months. Doing exactly what she should do, and for God. How do you tell God that you want your wife back? It was the only time in my life that I actually asked the question, "So if I walked in front of a truck...." and that scared me, I knew I was in trouble. That summer, I discovered the book, For Women Only by Shaunti Feldham, and like most men who grabbed it in spite of the title, found myself in tears after the first few lines. Finally, someone understood me and was telling my story. That book referenced a web forum, which I went to, my first, and where I met a few guys, but mostly a lot of women who hated the book and couldn't believe any of it. As I interacted with them, assuring them that yes, this is exactly how men think and feel, it was helpful for me to share my feelings, which I couldn't even share with my own wife.She was already miserable, and I couldn't heap more troubles on her.

Then, my wife crashed. The hours, the stress, the pain she suffered through with her friend, all took their toll. She realized that I was the only one who truly loved her and wanted her, that everything else is just a vapor, and that eventually, no one else really cares very much about all we've done. So we began another level of our relationship, one built on transparency and trust in ways that I'd always yearned for, but didn't even know was possible. It began to heal some holes in my heart.

The old forum collapsed through some strange works and posts, and just before it did, two people I'd grown rather close to found another forum where we could go and continue to share as we'd done. That forum was Ransomed Heart (sad to say that forum just ended a few months back, it just got to be too much for that small ministry to manage effectively). That forum was full of people asking the same questions that I was. Who are we? Why are we here? Is this it? Can we hang in there long enough to get to Heaven? And if so, how? How do we live life like that? And where is God in all this?

Along with a lot of like-minded friends, I was led to Lifetime Guarantee by Bill Gilham, and Waking the Dead by John Eldredge, and suddenly my Christian journey made sense. It was supposed to be hard, I couldn't live the Christian life, and we're in the middle of a war. But God. God's grace and life can live the life that I can't, His power and authority are what we need in the battle, and suddenly, like taking the red pill, I could see and understand. Everything. Craig invited me to a Ransomed Heart retreat run by Pastor Tim Harrison from his church in Elijay, and on a cabin porch there, God changed everything. He told me He loved me, in spite of everything, in spite of my addiction and my failures. It was overwhelming. It was personal, and it was deep. I was changed in a moment, and I knew it. Life was not going to be the same.

And I received a new identity. From half Christian/half monster, I became Zorro. That's only part of it, the part I can tell. The rest remains usually between me and God. It's why I resonate now with the story of Jacob, who I never much cared for, but he was just like us...working out a life the best he could until he was stuck and desperate, and then God showed up. When he wasn't even looking for Him. Gave him a new identity and purpose, and it changed everything. Check out Jacob's story here.

I have been living the abundant life, the free life. The addiction is gone, never revisited. My life is largely a life of joy, of walking in this intimate relationship with God, where He is my addiction. As He intended. Psalms 16:11 says, "You have made know to me the paths of life, in your presence is fullness of joy, in your right hand are pleasures forever!" God created pleasure! And He has it in abundance. Everywhere else we look is a false lover who cannot deliver. God delivers!

I've discovered that I'm not the first to experience this. Many others have gone before me. When I first heard Steve Brown of Key Life Ministries on the radio as a new believer, I couldn't even understand him. He was so gentle and kind, and seemed to think God was, too. Even reading CS Lewis now I'm struck at how his view of God's grace is radically different than most churches today. Bill Gillham wrote his book in the 80's...and John Eldredge is the one who's condemned by the 'God in a box' theologians, even though he's merely expressing (quite well!) the true heart of God today that many others have expressed throughout the centuries. I discovered that God does not like living in a box, no matter how big you've made yours for Him. He's way bigger. He's an escape artist, and He escaped the box I had built for Him. He brought me into Himself. This is a romance, a marriage, a honeymoon, even. And no one ever told me that that was what it was about.

That's what makes me get up in the morning, and makes me want to introduce you to this God you've never known.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Why This Blog?

There are probably a few million blogs out there, so what on earth can possibly warrant another? It's this: We're missing Life. We've ignored most of what Jesus was about when He came the first time, tearing down religious practices and drawing us into a Romance, a LIFE that would be abundant and free. Very few Christians can honestly describe their lives as abundant or free. Most of us are weighed down by burdens that we cannot carry, and have grown weary and hopeless wondering if we're even saved at all. We've been taught to manage our sin, do our duty, try harder, so that one day we'll leave all this behind and get to Heaven. And God remains distant, a taskmaster whom we can never please. We doubt our hearts, and His. And we wonder...Is this it? Do we just suffer along until we're dead?

And it breaks Jesus' heart. We've missed His message. We've done exactly what the religious leaders of His day were doing—trying to appease an apparently angry God.

The truth is, God is insanely in love with us. Insane in that it makes no sense. I know me. You know you. There's nothing much in us worthy of that kind of love and devotion. The kind that wipes away wrongs, that continues to take abuse, or being ignored, that watches as the beloved chases after so many other lovers that never satisfy. And waits patiently, mercifully, all the while whispering softly, "Pick me, pick me." He even sacrificed His own so that we could be free. Yet we think He hates us, or at best, tolerates us.

And if we didn't have enough trouble messing this up on our own, we have an enemy who constantly whispers to us: "Don't trust Him! He's up to something and doesn't really care about you. It is really all about Him, you know? Find life on your own." We've been listening to that voice all our lives, and we've agreed with it. God doesn't have our best interest at heart, so we create our own lives. And we run from the very One who gives meaning, purpose and love. Then we wonder why our lives are still so empty.

There is hope. Jesus came "to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18 ESV) Note that these are Jesus' own words, His own description of His mission. Indeed, it's His inaugural address. He could have chosen any passage out of the Bible, or made up anything else He wanted. But He chose this passage from Isaiah so that it would be clear what His heart is toward us. Most of us have read that passage and thought, "Oh, how nice, that Jesus has come to free the captives and give sight to the blind, and care for the poor." And we never realized that He meant us. We are the captives He came to free, we are the blind who cannot see, we are the poor and oppressed without hope apart from Him. He came for us.

That's His message. That's the message that this blog is all about.