Showing posts with label 2020. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2020. Show all posts

Thursday

What Do We Do With the Cloud of Witnesses?

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” [Hebrews 12:1]
 
Given the context of this reference – immediately following Hebrews 11, the great Hall of Faith of past believers – it is not uncommon to consider that believers from previous generations are among the cloud of witnesses. Not an unreasonable assumption.  And it’s fair to ask, What is the purpose of witnesses, if not to testify? Hmm.
 
Some believers have had experience with individuals in this great cloud of witnesses, consulting with believers from years gone by, hearing their testimony, receiving encouragement or counsel.
 
Other believers have raised questions about the practice of interacting with the cloud of witnesses. They point out that Scripture forbids God’s people to consult the dead [see Isaiah 8:19 and 19:3]. “That’s necromancy!” they shout into otherwise peaceful conversations. Sigh.
 
There is real reason to question from a cultural perspective what the OT verses are saying. This principle is solid: Scripture cannot say to us anything that it did not say to its original readers, and I’m pretty sure that the things that are forbidden in Isaiah and other places in the Old Covenant are about “consulting mediums and spiritists,” and not actually about believers interacting with saints of bygone ages. But that’s another issue, and that is not where I’m going today. Moving on.
 
Rather, I’m looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith. I see two stories about Jesus in Scripture that look to me like they shed light on whether interaction with the great cloud of witnesses is approved of or forbidden by Scripture. 


1) Luke 9 tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ statement in v27, where he says, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” The key point for this conversation is that Jesus himself is consulting with Moses and Elijah, two saints from many centuries earlier. Elijah may not have died [2Kings 2:11], but Moses clearly did [Deuteronomy 34: 5 & 7].  
 
“Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” [v30, 31] Apparently it was OK for Jesus to consult with previous generations of believers. Hmmm.
 
I observe that otherwise mature believers freaked out when Jesus did this, too [see v32 & 33], so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when otherwise mature believers today freak out as well.
 
2) Luke 20 tells the story of Jesus being tested by the Sadducees and their make-believe story of seven brothers who shared one wife. There are lots of important lessons to be found in this interaction, but the one that concerns this conversation is verses 37 & 38:
 
“But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
 
Jesus is specifically teaching that believers who have gone before – and apparently that will include the great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 12 – are not dead. “…for to him all are alive.”
 
It’s not unreasonable to point out that this was completely contrary to what the Sadducees, the first-century cessationists, confidently believed. Jesus turned their theology upside down with this teaching; it’s not unreasonable that it would turn the theology of some believers today upside down as well.
 
I still don’t know what I think about consulting with believers who have passed on. But I think that Scripture is very clear: this is NOT the thing that is prohibited in the Old Covenant. Jesus himself practiced it, and he very clearly taught that those believers are not dead, therefore consulting with them, as he himself did, cannot be consulting with the dead.
 
It looks to me like these are deep waters, and I surely don’t recommend the practice to immature believers. This is not “milk” [see Hebrews 5:12-14]. But I am convinced that this is not the practice of necromancy that some have accused it of being.
 
 

Withhold Judgment

I’ve been praying for a friend who is suffering from a formidable depression brought on by, among other things, the hysteria in the news, and the hysterical political voices it amplifies.

This morning, I wanted so badly to pray for judgment on the hysterical voices in politics and media. But I was reminded that judgment isn’t my job. Vengeance is not for me, and it was vengeance that I realized I wanted.

I changed my prayer, and withheld my judgment, instead referring them to Father for judgment. Then I offered an opinion. “I’d like to counsel you to consider judging these voices for their effect on my friend.” But I really, to the best of my ability, withheld my own judgment from them.
 
We were quiet for a bit. Then I had the sense that Father was feeling a measure of relief: now that I had chosen not to judge them, he was more free to work in their lives. Yes, he would judge, but not like I judge, and now I had freed him to do that work in their lives.
 
I’m thinking that we, the church, are keeping God from working in a number of areas by the judgment we hold in our heart. I’m still working out my prayers with the foundation of leaving the judgment up to him.

Collateral Damage From Someone Else's Errors

In Genesis 14, the king of Sodom and some other kings went out to war, to oppose an invading horde that was conquering the region.
 
They lost, so the conquering horde plundered the cities of the losing kings. Sodom was plundered by the invaders: the riches (“goods”) of the town, and they hauled off the people to be their slaves.
 
As part of their plundering, they carried off Abraham’s nephew Lot, who lived some distance away from the cities in the valley. 

Abraham gathered up his own army, drawing heavily on his employees and friends, and defeated the invading horde that had just conquered and plundered the valley.
 
I’ve read this story (1) a thousand times. This morning, some new thoughts crossed my mind.
 
Lot was not part of the war, but he was taken in the plundering anyway. I’m feeling Father inviting me to look at the war going on around me: is it my war, or am I being plundered because of someone else’s war?
 
• Uncle Abraham wasn’t trying to rescue five kings and five cities. He was rescuing his nephew (2). It also happens that we experience breakthrough as a side-effect of someone else’s breakthrough. Those might be worth looking for, too.
 
• I observe that Abraham’s relationships based on relationship, rather than on gathering for warfare. (3) (They were “allies”; Hebrew: “Men of covenant.”) At least in this situation, the covenant relationship seemed to contribute to the victory in battle over what appeared to be superior forces.
 
• That happened to Lot a second time a few chapters later, but this time (thanks to Uncle Abraham’s prayers), the angels chased Lot & his family out of the city before the city was destroyed. This time, Lot was nearly destroyed by the consequences of someone else’s sins (4).
 
• When Sodom & Gomorrah were destroyed, that was “Because the outcry against [them] is great.” It was in direct response to somebody’s crying out over the city. (5)  The things we say about a city will have great consequences. In this vein, I’m tired of folks cursing New York, Washington DC and San Francisco. Personally, I guard my mouth against even casually saying things that, if taken literally, would result in “stealing killing and destruction;” that’s someone else’s job and I WILL NOT help him. (5½)
 
• It was Abraham’s prayers for the people of Sodom & Gomorrah that spared Lot & his family. I suspect that if he’d had the nerve to keep going, he could have averted the entire judgment, but that is only conjecture. Clearly God does look for people to cry for mercy. (6) It’s probably good to be one of the people that cry for mercy. God goes out of his way to find these folks.
 
 
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Footnotes
(1) https://www.blueletterbible.org/tools/MultiVerse.cfm?s=000Mbf
 
(2) Genesis 14:14
 
(3) Genesis 14:13
 
(4) Genesis 19:15
 
(5) see also: https://bit.ly/2Tvx7hb
 
(5½)  John 10:10
 
(6) Ge 18:23-33. See also Exodus 32:10-14; Ezekiel 22:30; Isaiah 59:16; Jeremiah 5:1; Psalm 106.23
 
 
 
 
 

Mise en Place: Everything in its Place

Fathers, if they’re good fathers, often enjoy playing games with their kids, don’t they? It makes for time together, and it often strengthens the kids, physically, mentally and other ways, and it helps them grow and mature appropriately.
 
For the past several days, I’ve been waking up haunted by a strange phrase, a foreign phrase, in my mind. It’s not the first time I’ve woken up with words from another language in my mind; that’s one of the games that Father plays with me, kind of like hide and seek.
 
This time it was the term “mise en place.” I don’t recall ever hearing the term before, but suddenly, I’ve caught myself muttering “mise en place” under my breath a hundred times a day. I had to look it up.
 
It turns out that this is a French culinary phrase (pronounced “mi zɑ̃ ˈplas.”) which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place,” and it describes getting all the ingredients ready for what you’re going to cook (apparently assuming that you’re cooking in the kitchen of a French restaurant).

It often appears as a cart or a counter, completely covered with bowls or containers full of chopped, sliced or julienned ingredients for the chef in their cooking, and another set for the team making the plates look pretty before serving the guests. Even the bartender has their own “mise en place.”
 
It turns out that a high end restaurant will have a “mise en place” for their “front of house” as well: All the tables set “just so,” with the right plates, right glasses and silverware, even the flowers, lighting and decorations exactly as they want them, before the doors ever open to receive their guests for the service. Interesting thought.
 
In all these cases, the preparation of the “mise en place” is a team effort. Several cooks are cutting and chopping ingredients, several members of the service staff are setting out tablecloths and laying out the silver and the china. Bartenders are preparing syrups, setting out bottles, making sure the various glassware is within reach.
 
Since the phrase continues to rattle around in my mind, I’ve been meditating on it for some days: What is God hinting about here? I’ve been pressing into his heart to hear more: What is this treasure that he’s hiding for me to discover in this?
 
As I reflect on the phrase, I sense God’s Spirit resting on a couple of differing thoughts. I wonder if he’s whispering similar things to you?
 
• I sense Father encouraging me to get my ducks in the row, to get the details of what we’ve discussed into place in my life. There are some preparations that yet need to be made before I’m actually ready for what he’s bringing to me. If he begins cooking the meal he has in mind for me before the mise en place is ready, he’ll need to stop and prepare ingredients, or worse, serve the meal without some key ingredients.
 
• I also sense him whispering that, even with all the drama in the news, he does have his own ducks lined up: his mise en place is set up and ready to go. His house is ready for guests, and his place in his “front of house” – on the Earth in this case – is similarly ready. Everything is in its place for the next big event. (Side note: a goodly number of people have been involved in this chopping and slicing, in placing the forks and cups “just so” in preparation to receive his guests.)
 
• I’m reminded that “everything” is a big word. In other recent Easter-egg hunts, he’s been emphasizing “mille,” “thousands” to me: there are a LOT of details that he’s got ready for his plans. 

“Don’t under-estimate me, Son.”

Some Ways of God's Provision in the Desert

Point One: God has proven himself to be a skiled planner. If you look at the remarkable number (hundreds!) of advance plans (sometimes called prophecies) that he prepared in advance of his Messiah’s appearance on earth, details as far back as Genesis 3, you realize that God has some mad skills at planning ahead.
 
Point Two: God is good. That’s not negotiable. God is always (always!) in favor of his kids, always working for our good.
 
Point Three: In Exodus, God is pretty badass. His plagues confront the Egyptian “gods” and show them to be powerless. Then he leads a couple of million people out of slavery right on the schedule he had announced several centuries earlier.
 
And here’s where my ears seriously perk up.
 
God, the omniscient, omnipotent super-planner leads his people into the desert, famous for having neither food nor water. And what a surprise, the people have no water, no food.
 
So they complained. Like slaves do.
 
They wanted food (Exodus 16). So he fed them meat (quail: good eating!) in the evening, and bread (manna) the next morning (v12).
 
Then they complained about not having water (Exodus 17), and in the midst of their whining, they asked for water (v2). And God gave them water. He used a pretty epic miracle (v6) to do it, too.

And in these ways he provided for his children for forty years in the desert. (Hint: read Exodus again. What epic stories!)
 
We’ve all heard sermons about their complaining, and how that irritated God and really frustrated their leader, Moses. Reasonable lessons to draw from these stories.
 
I was talking to God the other day as we were going through Exodus. “You’re so good at planning. Why did you lead them into the desert without food or water?”
 
And suddenly, my mind was taken back to The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis’s book about the beginning of Narnia. Polly and Digory were on a mission for Aslan, the Christ figure, and they were hungry:
 
“Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals,” said Digory.
“I’m sure Aslan would have, if you’d asked him,” said Fledge.
“Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly.
“I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse. “But I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”
 
And Father whispered to me, “I wanted them to ask me, so I could answer them.”
 
I realized that God was training them how to come to him to meet their needs: his goal is relationship, a relationship of trust.
 
Someone smart once said, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” God works on our behalf to teach us that faith, how to relate to him in faith.
 
He’s good that way.
 
 
  

The Ministry of the Winnowing Fork

John said of Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” [Matthew 3]

I used to think of this – I was taught to think of this – as a description of the judgment of people, the “turn or burn” kind of statement. It was often included in evangelistic threats... er... sermons. “Raise your hand or face unquenchable fire!” Ick.
 
I don’t think that way any more. I’m not saying there is no judgment of individuals; clearly there is (though we’ve misunderstood it most of the time).
 
But wheat is produce, it’s fruit. This is talking about what we produce, the fruit we bear. This isn’t Revelation 20, it’s 1Corinthians 3:12-15.
 
In fact, I don’t think this is something to run from; I don’t think this is a threat. This is an offer of help. This is priceless.
 
I can’t speak for you, but for myself, I have to admit that there’s stuff in my life that’s not helpful. There’s stuff that gets in my way, stuff that slows me down, stuff that distracts me. There’s chaff in my life. I’m OK with that being removed from me.
 
And one of the earliest and most foundational descriptions of Jesus is all about that: keeping the good, the nourishing, getting rid of the useless, the distraction.
 
And if I think about it, that’s the essence of Jesus’ first sermon: “Repent [change how you think], for the Kingdom of God is within reach.” Get rid of the thinking that keeps the Kingdom out of reach. Hmm.
 
Invitation: if you feel like it, invite Jesus to point out chaff in your life, in your memories, in your values, in your ways of thinking. And invite him to take his winnowing fork to you, and to remove those things.
 
And trust him to do it kindly. Cuz that’s who he is.

Examples of Mystical Experiences in Scripture

I’ve been thinking about whether it’s reasonable to ask whether  mystical experiences should be normal for Christians. So I dug deeper into the Bible to see more of what the Bible has to say about them.

I was raised to think these were foreign to Christianity, contrary to the Bible, and were only experienced by people oppressed by demonic influences.
 
It turns out that our heroes in the Bible experienced some pretty significant “mystical experiences”:
 
• Daniel, Peter and Paul experienced trances. (1)
 
• Jesus and Paul took day trips to Heaven. (2)
 
• Folks burst out prophesying unwillingly (3)
 
• Philip, Jesus & Elijah were transported from one location to another (4)
 
• Visions were common for God’s people throughout the Bible. (5)
 
• Many people had God appear to them in a dream. (6)
 
• Many people heard the audible voice of God. (7)
 
• How many people in the bible had encounters with angels? (8)
 
• I’m reminded of people who walked with God (9)
 
These are just the easy ones to find. How many people experienced his comfort, his presence, whether in their souls or in their natural senses. How many believers have had conversations with God, been given knowledge or instructions by God.
 
“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.” [Jesus, in John 14:2]
 
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” [Paul, in 1Corinthians 11:1]
 
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” [Paul, in 2Timothy 3:16-17]
 
I’m thinking that we should be learning from the example of Scripture and stop fearing “mystical” or other supernatural experiences and maybe even embrace them. We can be confident that these experiences are indeed Biblical. We are indwelt by a supernatural God who loves mystery, after all.
---
 
Footnotes:
1.      Daniel 8:18, 10:9; Acts 10:10; Acts 22:17; 2Corinthians 12:2.
2.      John 3:13; 2Corinthians 12:2
3.      1Samuel 10:11, 19:24; Numbers 11:27
4.      Acts 8:39, 40; John 8:59, 12:3; 1Kings 18:12
5.      Genesis 15:1; Psalm 89:19; Isaiah 1:1, 6:1-10; Matthew 17:9; Luke 24:23; Acts 10:3, 10:11-17; Revelation 1:12ff
6.      Numbers 12:6; 1Kings 3:5; Matthew 1:20, 2:12, 2:13, 2:19,
7.      Exodus 3:5; Deuteronomy 4:33; 1 Samuel 3:4-11; Mathew 3:17; Mark 9:7; Acts 9:4; Revelation 1:10, 4:1
8.      Genesis 21:17; 2Kings 1:15; 1Chronicles 21:30; Matthew 1:20, 28:5; Luke 1:13, 1:30, 2:10
9.      Genesis 3:8, 5:24, 6:9; Micah 6:8, 2Corinthians 6:16

Wielding Your Imagination With God


What part of your being do you engage in order to think things through? We're talking about study and fact-finding and evaluating details, here. What do you do that work with? Your mind, yes? A lot of us engage the world primarily through our mind; American culture teaches us to do this.

What part of your being do you engage in order to feel things? That's the emotions, right? We talk about engaging people's emotions when we write or speak, and for many among us, this is the primary way that they relate to life; American media teaches us to do this.
 
And there are a relatively smaller portion of the population that engages life through their will: through choosing, through following through with their choices. I hate to say it, but an awful lot of American religion teaches us to emphasize our will and our choices.

You can often tell which of these components of their soul that people use most, relate most with the world, by listening to them talk for a bit. Sooner or later, you'll hear about "I think this," "I feel like," or "I did this."
 
Those are all well and good. In point of fact, a healthy human being will use all three components in their everyday life. It's my own understanding that the best choices are made, not with the emotions, and also not with the mind, but with the will, counseled by both mind and emotions, but that's a conversation for another day.
 
I want to talk for a minute about how to make use of the tool that God has given us called our imagination. I suspect that this is one of our more precious gifts from the God in whose image we're created.
 
I'll go so far as to say this: there are jobs that we are called to do which are far easier, far more effective to do with our imagine than with any other part of our being.
 
Let's clarify: this is not the same as daydreaming or wishing or fanciful creating imaginary worlds. Those are very often the result of an undisciplined, untrainned, lazy imagination. "I'm imagining myself winning the lottery!" Yeah, that's not it. Let's put our big kid pants on and look at the work of disciplining the imagination.

This list is NOT complete:
 
×  Dreaming with God. What a wonderful thing it is to share hopes and dreams with God. Absolutely, we need to share our hopes and dreams, if for no other reason than to hear his opinion and solicit his help bringing them into reality. That's a valuable use of our imagination.
 
But we also need to hear his hopes and dreams. This is a normal and healthy part of a love relationship. We learn so much more about his heart, his values this way. I suspect this one alone is worthy of several books!
 
×  Hearing God's voice. Yeah, God does speak audibly once in a great while, where we can hear him with our natural ears. And certainly, he speaks through Scripure, where we hear with various tools (our spirit, maybe our mind or our imagination, etc). But if we're ever going to get to that place of actual conversation with the Almighty that we all long for, we will hear him most of all through our imagination. It takes practice, training is helpful, but this is within reach.
 
"My sheep hear my voice," Jesus said, "and they follow me." Are you his sheep? OK, then either you hear his voice, or he made a mistake. Or you haven't learned how to exercise your imagination to recognize his voice. I know several books have been written on this.
 
×  Dreams and visions. Look, if you don't want to have dreams and visions, I'm sorry for you, but get out of our way. The rest of us want to experience all that we can with God, and this is part of it. Trances, too (see Acts 10:10 and 22:17).
 
In fact, if you look at the effects of these experiences in Scripture, you'll see where God revealed major revelation, where people saved their lives (and the life of the Christ child!), had formidable gifts imparted, all through dreams, visions and trances. Seriously, go look for it; it's actually hard to miss, once you're looking for it.
 
×  Snuggle Time. OK, that's not a scriptural term, I admit it. But God wants to manifest himself intimately with you even more than you are looking forward to resting intimately with him. Snuggling. Or call it whatever else makes you feel more comfortable. (Read the Song of Solomon. When you're alone.)
 
But this sort of very real experience with God happens through the means of your imagination. Logic just ain't gonna get you to this one, I'm afraid.
 
Somebody's going to worry here (thinkers, I'm looking at you! Heck, I Am you! This was my issue for decades!)
Yes, there are some dangers with exercising our imagination with God. Let's be honest: we can get into trouble with just about anything if we misuse it; why would our imagination be any different?
 
The solution is simple: don't be stupid. Well, that and learn to wield the gift of discernment that he already gave you when you first came to faith. You have that gift for a reason: use it! (See Hebrews 5:14.)
 
But just because you're afraid of your imagination (some people are), or because you don't know how to use your imagination as a tool (that's a whole lot of us Western Christians), or because your imagination is out of your control and runs off with your mind and your emotions without your permission (like mine used to be), that's no excuse to not learn to exercise self-control here.
 
You know how to communicate with God with your mouth. You know how to interact with God and his word with your mind. You know how your emotions experience things with his Spirit sometimes. You know when you need to make right choices.
 
Let's become as skillful with interacting with our Daddy who loves us with our imagination as we are with our other communication skills. 
 

The Manipulation of Outrage

Offense does not make you powerful. Offense to the point of outrage does not actually grant power. If you become outraged, if you are offended, you don't actually have any more power did you get before you were offended. You still don't get to choose for other people. You still don't get to deny others their rights, their freedoms, their choices.

There are some environments, some groups, that want you to believe that outrage gives you power. They are mistaken.

What outrage does give you sometimes is a attention and maybe irritation, not unlike how the toddler's temper tantrum in the grocery store gives the child attention and embarrasses her parent.  (It's worth noting that a child who is sick or well past nap time is a whole other issue.)

The outrage, the temper tantrum, does not actually imbue power; that screaming toddler cannot actually force her parent to comply with her wishes. But the attention and the irritation that the outrageous temper tantrum displays might actually succeed in manipulating a tired Mom to give her what she wants in order to shut her up. The power is a lie.

Outrage is manipulation. And like all manipulation, it only works if you allow it work on you.

The reality is that when someone is trying to wield outrage against you, it is you, not they, who has the position of real power. Their power is only the temper tantrum, attracting attention and deploying irritation in their bid for power.  But you hold the real power. You hold the power of choice.

In the public arena, when the media gets involved, things shift a little, but the principles remain the same. We've seen far too many times when the media focuses their not insubstantial attention on the children having the temper tantrums in congress or on the streets, amplifying the attention, amplifying the irritation and embarrassment adding to and working hard to justify the manipulation.

It's still our choice about whether we ourselves will succumb to that manipulation. It is not, on the other hand, within our power to choose whether the rest of society will chose to resist the manipulation, or whether they'll succumb to it. The best we can do is help them to see it for what it is.

It is my observation that outrage is the argument of choice primarily when reason or sensibility don't bring the desired result. It has been said that "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." Outrage surely must be the last step before the violence, and in the news these days, the two seem to be operating hand in hand.

In fact, it seems apparent that if outrage (or, for that matter, violence) is the argument employed to persuade, then it is a pretty reliable conclusion that whatever they're trying to persuade us about should be examined very closely, as the folks selling it clearly don't believe in the cause enough to trust their case to a reasoned appeal.  If they have resorted to outrage, they already know their argument is not rational.

It has not escaped my attention that I am writing for a community of people who are not generally found throwing temper tantrums in public. (I have observed an awful lot of believers, however, amplifying the outraged temper tantrums of others on their Facebook or Twitter feeds, more's the pity.)

My reason for writing this is to give us the opportunity to recognize outrage when we encounter it personally, to see it for what it is - an attempt at manipulating our will to do what the outraged want, and to choose to make our choices ourselves, not on the basis of manipulated emotions or fear of embarrassment or violence.

If someone describes their offense, engages their outrage toward you, stop and recognize that either they are too immature to communicate like an adult, or they're too injured, or they realize that their argument won't stand up to a reasonable conversation.

Recognize their attempts to manipulate you. Resist the manipulation, and choose for yourself.  Make up your own mind.

Never give up your free will to choose for yourself.

Wednesday

Which Gifts From God Don't Need God's Power?


There are three lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament.

The list that gets most of the attention is the list of gifts from the Holy Spirit:

“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit [of all]: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another [different] kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.” - 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

A lot of people are more comfortable with the gifts that Father gives:

“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think [of himself] more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. ... Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, [let us use them]: if prophecy, [let us prophesy] in proportion to our faith; or ministry, [let us use it] in [our] ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” - Romans 12:3, 6-8

And then there’s the gifts that come from Jesus, from God the Son:

“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. ... And He Himself gave some [to be] apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” - Ephesians 4:7, 11-13

I was out walking with God recently, and our conversation drifted to the subject of teaching, since that’s one of the gifts that I work in. We were talking (well, I was talking; that’s how these conversations go a lot of the time) about how teachers come up with the material for their teaching.

I was raised in a couple of traditions. I grew up in a fairly liberal denominational church, where you could preach on whatever you wanted to; it was nice if you could justify it from the Bible, but it wasn’t necessary.
                                                             
Then I was trained in inductive exegesis (let the Bible teach you what it says; teach on that) in a solidly evangelical tradition. In that tradition, if the Bible didn’t say it (and twisting scripture to make it look like it was saying it was verboten!), then you shouldn’t generally teach it.

Since those years, I’ve discovered that God actually speaks to his kids, and he is not unwilling to speak to me. The most un-nerving is when he teaches me truths that I can’t easily find in the pages of Scripture. For some decades, I was warned against the dangers of teaching from personal revelation; “That’s the way cults are started! <gasp!>”)

[Bunny trail: I’ve since gotten over that. I’ve discovered that a good bit (not all) of the New Testament epistles come from Paul’s own personal revelation. And he worked to make sure my revelation is consistent with the teaching of Scripture, never contrary to it. That seems like a solid standard.]

I found myself reflecting on how some teachings can be intellectual or emotional in its foundation, and other kinds of teachings (and here I reflected on prophetic revelation) requires more: it requires a supernatural element that other kinds of messages don’t.

And this is where God brought me up short.

“Hang on there, Son. Just which gifts and abilities from a supernatural God don’t actually need supernatural power? Which of these gifts do you think you can accomplish all on your own, anyway?”

Oh dear.

If I’m honest, I’ve considered that gifts like prophecy and miracles need to be supernatural, but a whole lot of others just need to be well-trained. In fact, while I’ve seen hundreds of training tools for various gifts (I remind you of my history), only a few gave more than lip service to the idea that supernatural empowerment was actually for the gifts they’re training.

In reality, I think the church is getting past the idea that the gifts of God, even the “less spectacular” ones like serving or teaching or evangelism, can function from skill, rather than from the power of God. But the idea is still ingrained in at least a few of us.

I need to say it a couple more times just to make sure I’m getting it:

• The gift of teaching, without the direction and empowering of the supernatural grace of God, is a mess. It would be a work of the flesh, and that would lead people towards a fleshly destination.

• The gift of pastoring, without the direction and empowering of the supernatural grace of God, is a mess. It would be a work of the flesh, and that would lead people towards a fleshly destination.

• The gift of mercy, without the direction and empowering of the supernatural grace of God, is a mess. It would be a work of the flesh, and that would lead people towards a fleshly destination.

• The ministry of helps, without the direction and empowering of the supernatural grace of God, is a mess. It would be a work of the flesh, and that would lead people towards a fleshly destination.

• The gift of teaching, without the direction and empowering of the supernatural grace of God, is a mess. It would be a work of the flesh, and that would lead people towards a fleshly destination.

• The gift of giving, without the direction and empowering of the supernatural grace of God, is a mess. It would be a work of the flesh, and that would lead people towards a fleshly destination.

Everybody should know that there’s a reason that “The Love Chapter” [1Corinthians 13] is smack in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts: we need to use our gifts with love. Which also leads us to:

• Love, without the direction and empowering of the supernatural grace of God, is a mess. It would be a work of the flesh, and that would lead people towards a fleshly destination.


Friday

It's Just Like Riding A Bicycle


Do you remember when you learned how to ride a bicycle? Your world changed that day.

Before you knew how to ride a bike, you were a pedestrian. You had to walk (or run) everywhere, or have someone else take you where you wanted to go. You were limited.

After that day, you could still choose to walk (or you could still ask someone to take you), but you had a new choice: you could ride your bicycle! You had access to new forms of transportation. You were powerful.

And ever since, you’ve had that ability. We even use it as an aphorism: “It’s just like riding a bicycle,” we say, when we want to describe a skill that you never really lose.

Father used that illustration with me recently. “It’s just like riding a bicycle. Once you’ve got it, you never really lose it.”

Let me back up a bit.

Have you ever had a particularly intimate or especially satisfying experience with God?

A friend of mine has had some remarkable experiences with God in what appears to be a garden. I’ve had some encounters in a big paneled library. Others have met him in worship, on quiet walks or in other experiences with him.

Pause for a moment, and think back to one of those times when you experienced God in a special way. Hold that memory in your mind. Have you got it? Now consider:

That was not merely an experience to be remembered (though it was memorable). That was an invitation to come back to that place again and again.

There’s a very real sense in which “It’s just like riding a bicycle.”

In my early experiences of this kind, they happened at God’s initiative. I was just minding my own business in prayer, doing what I regularly do, and the experience or the vision just showed up. It was all his initiative.

Recently, however, my sense has been that this is more up to me now. “I showed you what’s possible. Now it’s your turn.”

And the more I think about the nature of God’s relationship with his children, the more I see him training us for participating with him in the Kingdom we are inheriting with Jesus.

For example, Hebrews 12:8: “If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.” Remember that the word for “discipline” is” παιδεία paideía, pahee-di'-ah: tutorage, i.e. education or training; by implication, disciplinary correction.”

So he initiates the encounters with us the first time or the first few times. But he wants heirs, partners, not servants or perpetually-immature babies, so he invites us to initiate our encounters with him.

Since this is part of God’s training of us, I draw these assumptions (and they are assumptions) from the lessons:

• It’s going to be more difficult for us to initiate those meetings than it was when he did it for us. (See Hebrews 12:11.)

• It will get easier the more we practice. We will eventually get good at it.

• He’s still very eager to meet us. But he’s so committed to our maturity that he’s not going to short-cut the process; that would not be for our good.

So here’s some practical counsel:

○ Review your memories of your favorite or most profitable encounters with God.

○ Exercise your will, and probably your mind’s eye (not unrelated to your imagination) to re-visit that place; not the event of the encounter that you remember, the place. Look for a fresh encounter in the same place.

○ Don’t give up when it’s difficult, or when your experience isn’t what you are really wanting there. Keep pressing in.

○ By my counsel, I’d say stay verbal in the process. Keep talking with God throughout the process. Be transparent (“OK, this feels weird,” is healthy conversation).

○ If this is the first time you’ve tried this, do NOT let yourself be discouraged if you mess up, or if others accuse you of messing up. That’s the joy of a God like ours: we run TO him, we don’t hide from him, when we mess up.

Remember, It’s just like riding a bicycle.


Thursday

Prayer Isn't Enough


I’ve been hearing an awkward phrase for a while now.

“Prayer is not enough.” I think I’m hearing it from God. “Declaration is not enough.”

This morning, he went on:

• If you sit around the house all day eating bonbons, praying for weight loss, do you think I’ll believe you?

• If you pray for finances, but don’t go looking for a job, shall I take you seriously?

• If you pray for godly leaders, but don’t expend the effort to research and vote, do you really mean what you’re praying?

• If you fill your mind with the ravings of the fearful, then ask me for peace in your soul, I will question your sincerity.

• I could think of a thousand other illustrations.

The thought was, “If you don’t take your prayers seriously, why should I?”

Nepal and Baltimore: When Prayer Isn’t Enough – The HaystackIt seems that God is more interested in invested partners, in full heirs in the kingdom, than in needy, dependent toddlers.

If we’re heirs in the Kingdom of God, then we’re participants in the exercise of the rule of the Kingdom. He wants to work with us, not against. He is more willing to work with us than against us.

Our words have power, yes. But our actions are also powerful. Best to have them working together.

For a long time, we thought our words were powerless but we’re learning better now. It appears that we’re swinging too far in the direction of relying on our words.

That’s a truth, but it’s not the only truth. If we want to live as mature sons and daughters, we need to know more than just one truth.

The saying is, “Prayer works,” and it’s true. But it goes both ways. Prayer accomplishes things.  But prayer sometimes has work to do. Not instead of prayer; in addition to prayer. As part of the prayer.

We’ve got a job to do.

-----

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “
‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing.
He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. - Matthew 21:28-31


Tuesday

Scripture Interpreting Scripture: Eternity

You know how some things are better when they’re together? There’s more goodness when the right things come together. Cookies & milk are like that. Red wine & good cheese. Garlic & onion.

I always enjoy finding new combinations of things that belong together, that I had never considered together before. Sometimes that happens to me with Scripture. This is called letting Scripture interpret Scripture, and it’s known to be a good way to interpret the Bible.

When two or three passages are put together, sometimes they mean more than they did when they were apart. And since “all Scripture is God breathed, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” we can be confident that it’s a legitimate use of the Bible to use all of it for teaching or correcting our understanding of God.

For example, consider Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That’s kind of a big statement. It’s basically just a big list of stuff that cannot separate us from the love of God. There’s a lot of comfort in those verses.

Recently, two of the items on the list stood out to me: the first one (“death”) and the last one (“nor anything else in all creation”) also cannot separate us from the love of God. That’s a big deal.

And as I was reflecting on how we can’t be separated from God’s love by death or nothing else, another verse drifted through my mind. (It had my Father’s fingerprints on it.)

“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” [Revelation 21:8]

Wait, what? If death can’t separate me from the love of God, then the second death, the “fiery lake of burning sulfur” cannot separate me from the love of God.

But wait, there’s more! recently, God has been speaking to me through John 12:32, so let’s bring that one into the mix. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” How many people is he drawing to himself? It doesn’t say, “I will draw some people,” or “many people” or “144,000 people” to himself. It says “all.” Whoa.

It also does not say, “I might draw” all people to himself. It says, “I will draw,” and we studied that word to discover it was indeed a forceful drawing, like drawing a sword, or drawing a bow, or drawing a boat up onto the shore. “All” is a big word.

We can certainly argue that the promise of Romans might be only for believers; I know because I’ve done it, trying to make God exclusive. But God isn’t terribly exclusive (though his people certainly are), which makes that application difficult. Possible, but difficult.

And we can certainly argue that the warning of Revelation only apply to unbelievers; I used to teach that too, though if I’m honest, I know believers who fit every one of those qualifiers for the fiery lake, which kind of messes up that argument.

But John’s verse, now that little word “all” throws a pretty epic wrench in that whole “us vs. them” thinking.

So here’s where this whole line of thinking leads me: if there are people in the lake of fire, then the love of God is there with them, right there in the fire with them, doing what the love of God does: drawing people to Jesus.

That’s an unnerving conclusion. At this point, I cannot set this down as “What I Believe.” I can’t say that I’m confident this conclusion is an accurate representation of God (though I’m pretty confident that my previous beliefs were drivel and malarkey, only suitable for fertilizing the tomatoes).

All I’m saying is that if the whole Bible is true (and it is), if all scripture is God breathed (and it is), then I need to consider this carefully, seriously, in the light of the “whole counsel of God,” [Acts 20:27] and also in light of “the exact representation of [God’s] nature” [Hebrews 1:3].

My tentative conclusion is that God is not nearly so interested in smiting as we’ve tended to think he was. No, let me say it another way: God sure appears to be way more committed to the people he loves, and I think that might be everybody.

I think I’ve believed too little of him.

Thursday

Conditions On Inheriting My Promises


I’ve been reading in the Book of Numbers recently. The story of the twelve spies.

Moses Sends 12 Spies to Canaan - Numbers 13, 14:1-38 - Bible StoryToday I was struck by the fact that all twelve of them saw the same information. And all twelve of them agreed that what they saw was indeed awesome.

But most of them listened to the fears, and concluded “We can’t do this.” And God said, “OK. You can’t.”

God had brought them all this way specifically to fulfill this promise for them, but because they were moved by their fears, their words really did limit them, and they could not inherit, could not enter the promise.

They died in the wilderness, having been kept out of the promise, ultimately because they listened to their fears.

The other two, Joshua and Caleb, heard the same fears, but they didn’t listen to them. They listened to their trust in the God who had made the promise. They declared “We can do this!” even though they didn’t know how yet. And God said, “OK. You get to do this. But because the other ten wouldn’t believe me, you’ll have to wait until they die before you get the chance.”

• I observe that my ability to inherit God’s great and precious promises is dependent on my willingness to listen to him, to trust what he says, even when the media is shouting fears and anxiety at me.

• I observe that if I listen to the fear, if I speak from the fear, then I keep myself out of the promises that God is getting ready to give me.

• I observe that if I listen to the fear, if I speak from the fear, then I also prevent the people around me from experiencing their promises, at least until my fears and I get out of their way.

The good news is that we get to choose what voice we listen to. Free will really is that powerful!

“We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

Reflecting On Rules


I was thinking about the rules. God didn’t create the covenant with all the rules. He wanted something much better (Exodus 19:6).

But the people used to slavery rejected that proposal and substituted their own, based on a priesthood and obedience (Exodus 20:19 & Deuteronomy 5:27).

15 Personal Finance Rules You Should Know by Heart | The Motley FoolI was thinking that Jesus was not all about “Keep the rules better, dammit!” He didn’t reveal an angry god ready to smite miscreants, not even a little bit..

Instead, he was all about “come to me,” “love one another,” “he appointed twelve that they might be with him.” That kind of stuff. 

Jesus was all about relationship (Hebrews 1:2&3). He still is, I think.

I have learned that I have really misunderstood about sin. I think the idea that God doesn’t want us to sin is solid, but why? Why does God not want us to sin? I think I’ve had that part wrong.

I grew up thinking that it was because a grumpy God was concerned about the rules and the smite stick. I think I was deceived. Frankly, I think I was deceived by people who didn’t know any better. They had grown up with grumpy god theology, too.

Rather, God doesn’t want us to sin because sin breaks relationship. Sin opens the way for the world, the flesh & the devil to come between Him and me. It doesn’t really (Romans 8:35), but we think it does, so we run and hide from God (see Genesis 3:8). And always God comes looking for us.

Dad doesn’t want anything between us. Even “We want to sit at your right and left hand” (Matthew 10:37-40) is too much separation for him. It seems that the Creator of the Universe would rather die than put up with a damaged relationship with his favorite part of creation.

So he did. It seems he really is that much in love with us.



Rethinking What God Drawing Us Actually Means


I’ve been looking at how the Bible uses the Greek word, ἕλκω, helkō. It’s an interesting word. Fundamentally, it’s about “to draw by inward power, lead, impel.”

Here is the word in use:

• He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to *haul* the net in because of the large number of fish. [John 21:6]

• When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and *dragged* them into the marketplace to face the authorities. [Acts 16:19]

• The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they *dragged* him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. [Acts 21:30]

• But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are *dragging* you into court? [James 1:6]

• Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, *drew* it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. [John 18:10a]

Pretty forceful word, isn’t it?

Think about these examples, the force that’s involved. These are all involving a fair bit of force,
aren’t they? Yanking people or things from where they were to someplace else, without their participation. Interesting. . .

Think about who is wielding the power in these sentences; who’s making things happen here?

Now buckle your seat belt. Let me draw your attention to the ONLY other verses that use this same word that’s used for “haul” and “dragged” above:

• “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will *draw* all people to myself.” [John 12:32]

• “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me *draws* them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” [John 6:44]

I’ve always looked at this statement as if Jesus were talking about gently wooing folks, like warm and fuzzy marketing campaign, or like a young mother with a toddler. “Come on, all people, you can do this! Here we go! Upsy daisy!”

But that’s not the word used here. The word used here is a forceful word. It’s the word that is used in every other situation to describe yanking people or things from where they were to someplace else, without their participation, without asking their permission.

I’ve always been a huge supporter of the idea of free will: God gave us a mighty gift when he gave us free will. But these statements remind me of how powerful God’s pursuit of us is.

I think this might change how I pray some. I might be asking Father to helkō some folks, rather than just gently persuading them.


What Makes You Married?

Here’s an awkward question: what constitutes a marriage?

The Bible has lots of wisdom about how to make your marriage good, and a fair bit of discussion about whether marriage is the right choice.

But it never says, “This is what you do to become married.”

I know how people get married in my culture: there’s a marriage license from the state. You involve either a preacher or a judge or officiant of some kind. There are some vows, and a declaration of some sort. But not one of those is in the Bible, either as instruction or by example.

From a Biblical perspective, how do you actually become married? What do you do that makes you a married person now, instead of a single person?

I had reason to search this out a while ago. A good friend of mine, a person of faith, had begun to share a household with a woman he cared deeply about. That happens a lot, yes, and maybe we’re too quick to judge. I’m becoming convinced that being a Christian is more about loving people than judging them, so I focused on loving them, and not judging them, even in my mind.

And I saw things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

The first thing I saw was that they had clearly chosen this relationship, and this was a relationship of love, not of convenience, not of sex, not of whatever.

Beautiful Wedding Couple, Bride And Groom Holding Hands Looking Stock Photo - Image of lovers ...Over the weeks and months that I knew them, I realized how committed they were to that relationship. They’d never done a ceremony, so nobody had asked them the traditional question, but I watched them live it out: “Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live?”

They did that well.

In fact, I had to acknowledge that their relationship was a better illustration of what I think a marriage should be like than an awful lot of couples I knew that had gotten the license and the preacher and the service.

I had to confess that this confused me.

I couldn’t, in good conscience, refer to her as “your girlfriend,” because there was so much more than that in that relationship. Made-up terms like “significant other” or “partner” felt, well… made up, insufficient to describe this relationship.

Honestly, the word that fit was “your wife,” because that’s what she was in his life. Except that she wasn’t.

I was more confused now than before.

So I searched the scriptures. The question that drove me was “What is it that makes a couple ‘husband and wife’?” And the scriptures were remarkably silent on the topic. People got married all the time, and it talked about marriage all the time, but what they did to become married was never discussed. Genesis 29 shows a glimpse, but no more than a glimpse.

So the best I can come up with from the Bible is four components of creating a marriage. If you’re going to get married, as I see it in the example of the Bible (it’s not even mentioned in the teaching), you apparently have to do four things.

1) You have to make some sort of public statement. “We’re getting married” seems like it should be enough. In other words, this is something you declare in your community, not something you go off privately or do secretly.

2) Apparently, you have a party. There’s a bunch of people, they eat and drink and celebrate. If Jesus is around, apparently there will be good wine (see John 2).

3) You go to bed together.

4) Then you live together; you make a household.

I can’t find any more than these four in Scripture, which tells me that the other 99% of what we do in American culture is cultural: the best man, the bridesmaids, the ceremony, the “officiant” (whether preacher or justice of the peace), the certificate, the honeymoon. All of that is mere fluff. Some of it’s nice fluff, but it’s not part of what gets the deed done.


So I didn’t make a big deal out of it, but I began referring to my aforementioned friends using the word “husband” and “wife” where it felt appropriate. At one point, I explained that they did a better job of marriage than a lot of officially-married couples I knew, and we moved on. In other words, I blessed them in their relationship.

Some months later, he pulled me aside while we were all hanging out together. “So… would you like to do a marriage ceremony?” There was much rejoicing, a little bit of planning.

A few months later, in a gathering of their friends in the back yard, they spoke out loud the commitment that they’d been walking out for years.

Then we had a party.

More Thoughts on Job and His Sorry Friends

The more time I spend with Job, the more I’m impressed, both with the man and with the lessons that his book teaches me.

He started out as the richest, most influential man in the area. He was a godly man, and his godliness cam naturally; it wasn’t a performance.

Then disaster struck and took “everything he [had]” from him. What a mess. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.

Job starts out whining and feeling sorry for himself. His focus began as “Why God? Why me?”

Forty chapters later, Job still didn’t have the answers to that question, but he stood in respect of God rather than in accusation of God.

God’s response to Job’s “Why?” questions was essentially, “Son, this is above your pay grade.” I infer (and it is an inference; the Book doesn’t say it outright) that essentially Job didn’t know enough for the real answer to his “Why” question make any sense. I that’s true for me sometimes, too.

This morning, a couple of thoughts stick with me from Job:

• I find myself wondering if it would be wiser to bypass the self-pity and “accusing God” stage and just skip to the end: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted…. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore … I repent.”

Still chewing on that one. I’m not sure that’s actually a real-world option when you’re actually in the thick of it. But it would have saved Job so much pain had he been able to go there. Which leads me to the next observation:

• When satan took “everything he [had],” he didn’t take Job’s three self-righteous friends with the funny names (“Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite”). And listening to how they were “helping” Job, I can understand why: they were part of his trials, not part of him getting over his trials. Their “counsel” was part of why it took Job so long to actually connect with God.

I have decided I don’t want to be one of that kind of friend any more.

Literal or Metaphor

I’ve found myself coming back over and over to Jesus’ conversation with Nick at night in John 3. I have realized something new about Nick’s communication, how it differed from Jesus’ communication, how that difference got in the way of Nick understanding what Jesus was saying, and how often I’ve done the same thing. made that same mistake, and not merely once or twice.

Here’s the passage:

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him." Jesus replied, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." "How can someone be born when they are old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother's womb to be born!" Jesus answered, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'  [John 3:1-7]

Recently I realized that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, while Nick – not understanding metaphor – was trying to understand his words literally. No wonder Nick had such trouble figuring Jesus out.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?” [verse 10]

Then I recognized that those two facts are related: Nick did not understand how Jesus was teaching because he was Israel’s teacher: because he spent his days studying the scriptures. He approached scripture very literally, and that literal way of interacting with the scriptures kept him from understanding what God was doing right in front of him.

That has been me often enough. I’ve approached scripture so terribly literally that I have misunderstood my Father who speaks literally sometimes and metaphorically sometimes. I’ve prided myself for not being afraid to interpret scripture literally, and yet that very literalist approach has often kept me from seeing, from understanding what God was doing in me, right in front of me.

Because God does not always speak literally.

The Great Cloud of Witnesses: An Exercise


Here’s an interesting spiritual exercise if you’re interested.

Hebrews 12 begins with this image: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”


I’ve been reflecting on that great cloud of witnesses. This passage starts with “Therefore,” which means “Because of what we’ve just talked about....” All of Hebrews 12 rests on the foundation of Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Faith.”

The great cloud of witnesses, then, is all the saints of God that have gone before us: the famous ones, the great ones, the ordinary ones, the nobodies. By now that’s several billion witnesses that are watching us run our race. Some of them are my predecessors, though it may take a number of generations before I find the interesting ones.

• The exercise that I’m working on this morning is reflecting on specific “whos” that are among that great crowd. Most of these are family members that have gone before me. In my line, there were some preachers several centuries ago, and Sunday school teachers in more recent years, and I know of one or two forbears whose names show up in history books. I’m thinking of them.

• And I’m thinking specifically of them witnessing my race, my life, my choices. I absolutely reject the idea of making my choices because of how it looks to others, even to them, so that’s not it. But I consider their thoughts and feelings as their look on their great (or more) grandson. Are they embarrassed? (What would they be embarrassed about? Heaven has already blotted out my sins!) Are they cheering me on? They’re probably not bored!

• Most of all, I’m trying to look at my life from their perspective: They see the great plan of God. They see history from beginning to end as they’re watching me. What do they see in my life (which is different than what I see in my life) that relates to the great plans of God.

My encouragement then is to take some time and ask Holy Spirit to show me some of what’s going on as the great cloud of witnesses watch me, and specifically as these witnesses that I can think of are watching me, what’s their response to me? Are they cheering? Can they offer strength or encouragement?

This crosses my mind: “What do family members do when they’re watching one of their kids or grandkids running a race? Especially, what do they do when they are approaching the end of the race?” Why they stand up and cheer, don’t they?

Do you see them cheering for you? Can you hear them? Can you feel their joy in you? Their pride in you? Their excitement as your race is approaching that next interesting thing in the purposes of our mutual King?

If you try this, what do you experience? What do you see? What do you hear? Who’s cheering the loudest? Who’s poking the angels and pointing you out?