Seeking to be transformed into the image of Jesus

A Voice in the Desert

Thoughts of a pilgrim on a journey toward Jesus...

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Ruth: An Example of Grace Gone Viral

ImageWhen I attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I was blessed to have Dr. Dennis Magary for several of my Old Testament classes. His passion for the Old Testament was infectious.  Following his class covering this diminutive book, I fell in love with it…so much so that when I became pastor of Amman International Church it was one of the first books I preached from was the book of Ruth. Recently I had the opportunity to do the part of the narrator for a “readers theater” through Ruth at our church. Reading and reflecting on the book reminded me why I love it…

1. The book of Ruth is about taking risks

Ruth is a Moabite woman. She’s a gentile. She has no standing in Israel at all. But she leaves her people and her family who could provide for her and she goes with Naomi back to Bethlehem. She loves her mother-in-law and she loves the God of her mother-in-law. She knows that Naomi has no one and she will need someone to care for her. She is determined to be that person.

That sounds normal to us, but Ruth has no guarantee that she will be accepted by the Israelites in Bethlehem; no guarantee that a woman in a male-dominated society will be able to provide what they need to live on; no guarantee that anyone will let her glean in their field; no guarantee that she won’t face abuse, prejudice; violence; name-calling…who knows…But none of that stops Ruth from doing what’s right and seeking Naomi’s best.

Naomi takes a risk when she sends Ruth to the threshing floor. If Naomi marries, who will take care of her? There’s no guarantee that if Ruth marries Boaz they will continue to provide for her. But that doesn’t stop Naomi from doing what’s right and seeking Ruth’s best.

Boaz takes a risk when he agrees to both marry Ruth and redeem the land. To redeem the land, Boaz will have to pay a hefty sum. If he and Ruth have a son and he is considered Elimilech’s heir, he will have to pay the redemption price a second time. This is why the first kinsman-redeemer refuses to redeem. It really could bankrupt him and put his own estate at risk. Boaz has no guarantee it won’t be financially difficult for himself. But that doesn’t stop him from doing what’s right and seeking both Ruth and Naomi’s best.

2. The book of Ruth is about how infectious love and grace are

Ruth shows loving-kindness to Naomi by returning with her to Bethlehem and going out to glean and provide food for them both. She brings all she gleans and even what she has left over from her own lunches back to Naomi.

Ruth really wasn’t required to do this. And Naomi’s bitter spirit certainly didn’t make her very lovable. But Ruth shows grace and love to her grieving mother-in-law.

While gleaning, Boaz notices Ruth. When he’s told who she is he blesses her verbally but also makes sure that she will be able to glean and gather more than what she needs. He has heard of her kindness – it’s the talk of the town – and now he has seen it. Ruth’s loving, gracious behavior moves him to show loving-kindness to her.

And then something happens…Naomi utters a prayer of blessing for Boaz. She begins to recognize that she hasn’t come back to Bethlehem as empty as she thought. God hasn’t been so hard on her after all. And then she sends Ruth off in the middle of the night to seek Boaz as a husband. She stops thinking only about herself and thinks of Ruth! She didn’t have to do that! But Ruth’s loving-kindness and Boaz’s generosity have infected her and she acts lovingly and gracefully too!

3. The book of Ruth is about how small choices can make a big difference…

Throughout the book, as we’ve already seen above, people make small choices that end up providing big blessing for others. But another way we see this truth is when we consider that Ruth is one of four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy. Ruth, a gentile woman, becomes one of the great-grandmothers of the Messiah. King David was her great-grandson. She is, without a doubt, a woman worthy of such an honor! It is a reminder too that it isn’t where we’re from or what language we speak or what we look like that is most important, it’s our heart and our character and our love of God and others.

Even in this blog I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of the book of Ruth’s riches. It is a small but powerful book that speaks practically to how we live our lives daily. May we be the kind of people who live lives filled with grace and loving-kindness for God and his glory!

Ten Reasons I Love Solitude and Silence

silenceIf you follow either of the blogs I write, you know I’m pretty passionate about how significant silence and solitude are in the spiritual journey. This evening I’m teaching on solitude as part of a series of lessons designed to help some friends establish a rhythm of life that moves them toward the spiritual lives they long for. As I was preparing for the lesson I decided to list the top ten reasons I love solitude and silence. I offer them here without editorial comment or explanation…

10. Solitude and silence invite me to let go of control of my life, even for just a short while, and to be still and know He is God.

9. Solitude and silence help me not feel compelled to talk all the time.

8. Solitude and silence remind me that I am more than the sum of all I do.

7. Solitude and silence fan the flames of my heart’s passions.

6. Solitude and silence allow me to be who I really am, my true self, without having to hide behind masks or the personas I want people to think I am.

5. Solitude and silence re-calibrate my heart so it is centered on Jesus and prepared to reenter the chaotic world around me.

4. Solitude and silence enables me to be more attentive to God’s still, small voice.

3. Solitude and silence bring rest to my soul and allow me to replenish so I can engage my family and the world around me more significantly.

2. Solitude and silence create space for the Holy Spirit to transform me.

1.  Solitude and silence allow me to connect directly and intimately with God.

Picture This…

When I was a kid, there was a Kodak commercial that showed an older mother packing up pictures as she and her retired husband were moving out of the home they’d been in for years. Each picture of her son told the story of him growing up over the years  and spoke of the family’s making all sorts of memories and, of course, taking pictures while they did it. The song playing for the commercial was, at least to me as eleven or twelve year old, a haunting melody with the words, “for the times of your life…” being sung. (You can watch the commercial here)

For some reason after seeing that commercial I would lay in bed at night and think. I would think about dying and whatgrad pic would it be like after I was gone. Would anyone remember me? Would anyone care? Maybe my parents or children or wife or sisters would miss me, but would anyone else? How soon would I be forgotten completely? I would think about the world without me and how it would keep going…and how it had been going for a long time before I got here.

That led me to think backward. My mind would travel to the days long gone by of historic events and biblical characters and eventually to before even the world’s beginning. I would ponder (as much as I could at eleven or twelve years old) the vastness of the universe and what nothing was like. How did everything get started? Random molecules colliding? Some nuclear explosion? But, if that was it, how did the molecules get there? Who caused the explosion?

I felt so small and scared. And yet, in that place I knew one thing: there had to be a first cause; there had to be a God. I felt completely overwhelmed at the thoughts that my mind was chasing after. I was scared, because in this enormous universe who would notice little me? What did I matter?

I thought of these things this morning when I read Jesus’ interaction with the religious leaders of his day in John 8. I was especially struck by John 8:58, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” The thought that Jesus, who was just over thirty at the time he said those things, had been around before Abraham; before the foundation of the world when the world was void and formless; when there was nothing, that thought took me right back to those thoughts I’d had as an eleven or twelve year old.

But this time, though I felt the same small, insignificant, overwhelmed feeling in my chest – in fact, for a moment the thoughts made me physically dizzy – I wasn’t scared. I was comforted. Jesus had been there. He’d seen it all. He’d been Lord of it all. And that same Jesus, he’s the one who would remember me. Whenever I leave this earth and this physical body, He’s the one who will be there to welcome me home. He knows me. He loves me. He died for me. Even as I type this, tears well up in my eyes to think of how completely known and loved I am by him.

This morning, looking out as the world was waking, at the birds  feeding, and thinking about the great I AM, my heart was filled with peace and joy at the mystery of it all. As this day begins, I can’t help but wonder, “what does He have in store for me?”!  We’re going to make it a memorable day.

Walk With Me: The Journey of Spiritual Direction

Over the past four years I have found monthly spiritual direction to be one of the most beneficial and catalytic practices in my spiritual life. But it is often very hard to communicate to people what spiritual direction is. It is a practice in which one person meets monthly (usually) to walk along side another person who is committed to spiritual transformation. The spiritual director seeks to help the person discern the presence and the leading of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of deepening in intimacy with God. The real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. The “director’s” role is to accompany the person on the journey that he/she might have a better sense of how/where/why the Holy Spirit is directing him/her.

Clear as mud, right? Perhaps a story will help illustrate what I mean:

My son, Jonathan, is in eighth grade. He’s taking a reading comprehension class. Reading is something he enjoys, but it’s sometimes hard for him to sort through the information to glean what is most important and what is less significant. He’s still learning to recognize the author’s purpose and sign posts and themes. 

He’s just begun reading Corrie Ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, in class. Today as we drove to school, we discussed the second chapter. I asked Jonathan what he thought the author wanted us to get from the chapter. He began telling me the events of the chapter as they unfolded. I interrupted and told him I’d read it. I wanted him to step back and look at the larger picture. He didn’t quite get it.

So, I asked him, “The chapter was called ‘Full House’. Why was it called that?” He thought about it some and said, “Because there were a lot of people living in the house.” I told him that was correct. There was also a lot of activity in the house!

We talked some more and then I asked him, “What clue did Corrie give you related to the title of the book and what’s coming later?” He told me, “She talked about a psalm her father had read that said the Lord is our hiding place.” We went on to discuss this and how Corrie wondered where the hiding place was and what she needed to hide from. We talked about how she couldn’t know then about what was coming and how later in the chapter she shared two stories that helped her understand that God only gives us the knowledge we need and he gives it at just the right time.

So what does this have to do with spiritual direction? A lot! When I spend time with my spiritual director, I sometimes get bogged down by the details of daily life. Her questions and observations often help me to see the connections I miss by looking so closely at things. She helps me see the forest and not just the individual trees.

For example, when I shared with her my review of the year and where I am spiritually and where I sense God inviting me in the future, she made the observation, “A year ago when we started meeting all you had were questions – where did God want you to serve? What should you do? But now as you look at where you are, He’s answered every one!”

It was true! I’d completely missed how amazingly faithful God had been in providing answers to nearly every question I’d had! I left that appointment with a deep sense of God’s presence, blessing, love, and faithfulness. I sensed so deeply that He was with me and for me! It was a rich and significant moment.

Spiritual direction provides me the space to tell the story of my journey with God. But more than that, it invites another person to walk that journey with me and to help me sort through what God is doing in and through me. I need to stop and regularly reflect on what’s going on in my life, but I can still miss the big picture – the forest – and focus on the details – the trees. It needs to be a both/and – both the big and the small, the forest and the trees.

Just as I helped Jonathan to learn how to comprehend the meaning and purpose of chapter two of The Hiding Place, my spiritual director helps me learn how to comprehend the meaning and purpose of my life and God’s activity in it.

Spiritual direction comes in many shapes and sizes – formal, informal, trained, lay, free, at a cost. I have had two spiritual directors – one while I was in Jordan who I would talk to on the phone for an hour each month and one here in Knoxville who I meet with in person for an hour each month. Many times I have no idea what to talk about, but as we wait on the Holy Spirit, inevitably He shows up and I almost always leave encouraged and spurred on toward deeper intimacy with Him.

 

Life is Hard

As the New Year begins, I’ve been reflecting on the whole concept of dying to self and what it means to truly love Jesus. (You can read some of my reflections at here.) One of the first lessons we learn, if our parents and teachers are honest with us, is that life is not fair and it is very often hard. At least that used to be one of the first lessons we would learn. Today many parents and adults generally want to shield children from the struggles and pain that often come in life. They want to help young people avoid the pain and the suffering they faced. They want their children to have a better life than they had.

Good intentions, but perhaps with disastrous results. The reality is that life is hard. There is pain and there will be suffering. If you don’t have any in your life, you either aren’t alive or are in some serious denial. Carl Jung and others have said that the unwillingness to accept “legitimate suffering” that comes from being human brings “unnecessary suffering”. Perhaps we aren’t doing our children any favors if we try to protect them from all pain, from all suffering.

We affirm this truth in athletics, in business, in the great success stories of life. Things worth having, prizes worth winning, goals worth accomplishing –  they take effort. They require sacrifice. They involve self-denial and often pain. British broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge once said toward the end of his life, “Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”

One writer says that creation itself confirms this in the patterns and cycles in the natural world: the daily “dying” of the sun so all things can live, the changes in seasons, the seeming death of plants and trees to be reborn in the spring. There is a pattern of suffering, of pain, of death and rebirth inherent in the world we live in.

Jesus words and life affirms this. He said, 24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him (John 12:24-26).” Jesus spoke these words just days from his crucifixion knowing the cross had to come before there could be resurrection.

Life is hard. It has suffering. There is pain and difficulty. But it’s supposed to be that way. It’s necessary. There is a cross before the crown. We must die to truly live. We don’t like this most of the time, but the sooner we learn it and accept it and live it, the sooner our lives will bear fruit and we will be transformed and will experience life that is truly life.

There is a lot of pain and suffering that is thrust upon us. A lot of it we have no choice. But like an athlete in training or an artist working on her craft or a medical student trying to grasp the intricacies of anatomy and physiology, there is a pain, a suffering we must choose. We must willingly deny our fleshly desires for comfort and ease; our desire to coast and have things come to us. We must choose to say no to things that distract and yes to things that bless. 

This is a pattern I’ve seen in my own life too. Times when dreams and desires have had to be put on the “altar” and in my heart sacrificed because I sensed (or plain knew) God was inviting me to something else. Sometimes those things were given back and in a way that was so much better. Other times they truly died and usually my heart was able to release them because what I received was, in fact, exactly what I needed. But those lessons often come in looking back; rarely do I understand them in the moment.

So, in these days, I’m asking myself:

Where have I known pain or suffering in the past year? Was it “necessary” or brought on by an unwillingness to accept what God had for me?

What did I learn this past year? What should I have learned?

Where are there areas I need to die to self? Where I need to offer a dream or a desire to God?

What are my dreams and desires for the coming year? What if they aren’t God’s dreams or desires for me? What do I sense He says/thinks about them?

Life is hard. But I don’t face it alone. I have a heavenly Father who walks with me and who loves me and who wants only the best for me. As trite as it may sound, that makes all the difference in the world.

The Power of Little Things

This week we had a Japanese friend come for a visit. We hadn’t seen her for five years. She is traveling around the world for six months to visit friends who have made a difference in her life while she is contemplating the next step for her. She came to say thank you.  She told me the story of why…

In 2006 I was in the US for a gathering of college students interested in making a difference in the world. I attended and each day wore traditional Arab garb – a dishdasha and hatta wa gaal – and told people about opportunities to visit the Middle East. She didn’t want to talk to me. She wasn’t interested in the Middle East or being in a country with Muslims.

But…we ended up talking. She was finishing her training as an OB/GYN doctor. I told her about my wife and the work she did with Iraqi refugees…I shared with her about the Arab world. She sensed her heart was changing – softening – but she wasn’t sure she needed to do anything about it until a postcard arrived. It was a simple note I’d written to tell her how much I’d enjoyed meeting her and that I would be praying for her. I invited her to come visit us in Jordan. In Japan, a handwritten note is extremely precious (I had no idea! I wrote a note to everyone I met!). She took this very seriously as a sign from God. He was trying to tell her something…

A year later she came to visit us in Jordan. During her time there, she saw the Arab world in a whole different light. It opened her eyes, and her heart, to Muslims. When she returned to Japan, she began looking into ways to return to the Muslim world to serve the poor and the needy. She ended up in another country, but she lived there for several years loving the people and serving them with her skills as a doctor.

So…here was our friend…six years after I’d met her sitting in our family room in the US telling us how God had used a brief conversation and a postcard to change her life. She had come to say thank you.

Ultimately, this story is not about me and I don’t share it to impress you. I am deeply humbled and convicted by it. Humbled because I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. I was just doing what I was supposed to. But God took my obedience and my availability and used it for something bigger. I had no way of knowing how! I fell humbled because I know there are so many people God has used in the same way in my life. There are so many others who have been faithful and available and obedient and I’m not the same because of them.

And I am convicted. Convicted because I know that I haven’t taken the time to thank the myriad of people who have made the difference in my life. I haven’t made the effort to let most of them know they’re simple acts of kindness that meant nothing special to them were incredibly important to me. Too many of them I can’t even remember. I’m also convicted because I know there have been times God wanted me to be available and to be obedient and to offer kindness…and I didn’t. I was tired. I didn’t think it would matter. I didn’t think my little act would make a difference. So I didn’t obey. I wasn’t available.

The power of little things in the hands of the Holy Spirit never ceases to amaze me. This story is all of our stories. It’s a challenge to us to be loving and kind, available and obedient even when it seems small and insignificant. It’s an encouragement to us that when we live by faith with our hearts willing to serve and to give God will take our acts – even the smallest – and use them in ways we cannot imagine. We may never know how he uses them in others’ loves or in our own. But when we offer them we can be sure that he is a God, a loving Father, who doesn’t waste anything and doesn’t miss anything.

May our lives exhibit the presence and power of God in our living faithfully and obediently in the little things. And may we be the kind of people who go out of our way to thank others for the little things they do that make a big impact in our lives.

Delivered

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist

Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was struck silent for months because he didn’t believe the promise the angel made when he was ministering in the temple. When his son is born, his tongue is loosed and he prophesied under the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a beautiful passage. Zechariah prophesies about his son and about how God had visited his people. There is hope of salvation and deliverance in his words.

On Christmas Eve morning, I read this passage and was struck by verses 74-75. As I read those words – that God was moving to deliver us from the hand of our enemies that we might serve him – the question came to me: The Lord Jesus has come and delivered us from all our enemies. His work on the cross brings this deliverance. But, who are my enemies? Who has he delivered me from?

Certainly sin…The work of Jesus on the cross brings deliverance from the power of sin. It is no longer my master.

And death and Satan…Death has lost its sting because in Jesus there is hope of life that is eternal…and Satan is no longer my master because I have been delivered from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God!

But what else? What other enemies might I have? I’m sure Zechariah had in mind – or many in his day at least – that the Messiah would come and get rid of the Romans. But from this side of the cross, we have a better perspective and realize that the deliverance in view here is first and foremost something spiritual…

So what about my false-self. The ‘me’ I want people to think I am…the ‘me’ I project myself to be. Could it be that Jesus delivers me, rescues me, from my false-self? I think so, because through him, I am being transformed into the ‘me’ I was created to be. I am being remade in the image of Christ.

And he delivers me from fear…fear that I am not loved for who I am…fear that I can never be good enough…Jesus came and demonstrated through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection that I am loved! While I was still a sinner, Christ died for me! And obviously not just for me, but for all who believe. But the beauty is that his perfect love delivers me from fear!

Because I have been delivered, I am free to live and to love and to serve my heavenly Father without fear! I am free to live in the power of His Holy Spirit – to live a life that is increasingly full of righteousness and holiness!

I am free! I am loved! I am in Christ!

Wow! Now that’s a great Christmas present!

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