Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Just another week in the Kingdom

I find myself split in two this week. It is VBS week, which means I spend the better part of my afternoons prepping for VBS and my evenings are consumed with the program itself. Yet we also had a prominent member of the church pass away this week, which means I am also in the midst of funeral planning with the family. What it boils down to is on the one hand I spend my time celebrating with a bunch of kids and on the other I try to comfort a man who has lost his wife of nearly 50 years.

But isn't that life? When I look at Jesus' ministry I find Him constantly pulled in many different directions. While in the midst of dinner at a religious official's home, He is interrupted by a "sinful" woman seeking acceptance. Immediately after the mountain-top expereince of the transfiguration, Jesus descends the mountain to break up an argument amongst His disciples and cast out a demon. We see Jesus entertained at parties one moment and healing the sick the next. He plays with the children while rebuking the Pharisees. He casts out demons while enduring accusations of being in the same league as Satan. Ups and downs. Highs and lows. Let's face it, Jesus lived a life the same as so many of us.

It's into this life that His words resonate with the ring of truth as He boldly proclaims, "Seek first the Kingdom of God..." How do we survive the roller coaster of life? We live it with the Kingdom in view. Keeping His rule and dominion in mind, we can face both the victories and tragedies of the day with a proper perspective knowing that our needs will be satisfied. That's what Kingdom living is all about... keeping focused on Jesus.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I know, two posts in one day! It's like the bogo sales at payless! I couldn't resist though. Today as we traveled to Richmond to eat lunch with my father we noticed this Blue Heron in the parking lot of one of the shopping centers off of route 1 in Hanover. What is so funny about this is that for the last four years I have lived on the eastern shore of Maryland, within a 20 minute drive of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. I have often driven out to Blackwater to try to capture one of these majestic birds on film so that I may use it as a reference in some of my artwork. After dozens of attempts I could never get close enough to one to warrant a good picture.

Now I have moved to southern Virginia, and am in a busy suburb of the city of Richmond, and this bird, so elusive in Maryland, walks right up to my van! I didn't even need the zoom feature on my digital camera. The irony struck me as profoundly humorous, but more than that, I think God was trying to prove a point to me. My best efforts could not get me close enough to this Heron. I tried so often, waited long periods of time, and exerted a lot of patience, and never did I get the picture I wanted. But when I least expected it, outside of my own doing, God provides the opportunity for a picture. I can't help but think of God's providence in all things.

We often try to force opportunities. We seek to do things "our way" and we get frustrated when we fail. Whether it be something as trivial as trying to get a picture of a bird or as important as receiving salvation, we receive the best outcome when we trust in God's timing and in God's way.

I can't wait to see what God provides next., and to all you driving in the northern Richmond area, watch out for herons!


Have you ever been hungry? I mean really, really hungry? I have been blessed enough in my life that I have never known true, brink of starvation hunger. Now, when I was a teenager, I might have argued this point. It seemed I was always hungry and could never get enough to eat. (Proof is in the half-loaf of bread and box of cereal I would eat every morning for breakfast). My mother swore that our refrigerator came with a teenager's rear-end hanging on the door.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." The phrase is so familiar to the mature Christian we often skim over it without a second thought. But if there's anything that I'm starting to learn, none of Jesus' words are to be taken lightly. His words recorded in scripture were never spoken casually. They were pre-meditated, intended for His followers, who millennia later would read them. I like Arthur W. Pink's term for the beatitudes. "Spiritual torpedoes," intended to explode in the depths of our soul when we least expect them. So it is with this beatitude and myself.

I am often harder on myself than I should be. I kick myself every time I sin. Every time I lose my temper I feel terrible afterwards. I blame myself, demean myself and all but fully convince myself that God's grace can't reach me. That's where this beatitude explodes into hope. Jesus doesn't say, "blessed are those who have attained righteousness" but rather those who hunger for it are to be blessed. I don't have to be perfectly righteous to attain God's blessing, I simply must hunger for, dare I say crave, perfection.

What do you do when you are hungry? I know what I do. I eat. When you hunger for righteousness then your desire will be to do right actions. That is the only way to saistfy your appetite, nothing else will do. And like the ever-hungry teenager, our appetite for righteousness must be perpetual. We must continue to grow in Christ, just like in order to stay physically healthy we must eat on a regular basis. God wants us to grow spiritually, so one meal of right actions may saisfy for a short time, but before too long, the Holy Spirit prompts us to another. In this way we begin to strengthen our walk with Christ.

But there is another benefit of this blessing. Here the Great Physician gives us the prescription for defeating sin. Most of our sins are ingrained in our habits. We do them so often they become second-nature. Then we complain to God when we can't break our cycle of sinful addiction. If you want to break a habit, you must replace it with another. Here, Jesus challenges us to replace our hunger/addiction for sin with a hunger/addiction for righteousness. And here is where the blessing truly takes hold, "they shall be filled." How often I have counseled those who thought that their sin would fulfill some desire in their life only to find that it left them empty inside. Whether it be a teenage girl who thought sleeping with her boyfriend would bring emotional fulfillment, or the young man who thought that drugs would give him an escape from the troubles of this world, or countless others, they all had the same empty feeling inside. Only a hunger for righteousness can be filled. Need proof? Try Revelation 7:16 which tells us that the righteous in heaven will never hunger or thirst again. Jesus gave a similar promise to a woman at a well in John 4.

So the next time your stomach grumbles, think "What do I really hunger for?" Your answer will determine if you will be filled or not.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

God's Word in Real Life

I never cease to be amazed at how God chooses to reveal His Word to us. As I have studied for my sermon this week (on the first three beatitudes in Matthew 5; "blessed are the poor in spirit... blessed are thos who mourn... blessed are the gentle") God has chosen to show how His words spoken two millenia ago are still relevant today.

About once a week I make a trip to a little coffee shop in Victoria, Virginia (Uptown Coffee for my fellow caffeine addicts) to enjoy a sandwich and a great cup of coffee. This week as I sipped my coffee and put some final touches on my website a couple of guys came in. They were dressed in the spandex outfits of byciclists and looked like they hadn't shaved in weeks. A quick glimpse outside revealed two Schwinn 10-speeds loaded down with the modern-day equivalents of saddlebags. I asked the two travellers where they were from. "San Antonio," was the reply that started a pleasant conversation between them, the waiter and myself. They had decided to spend their entire summer biking up the eastern seaboard hopefully as far north as Boston, which, to a Texan, is a foreign country. Eventually our waiter asked what they did for a living to help fund this trip. Their answer was both humorous and thought-provoking. "We're professionally poor," was the quip by these two college students.

My mind, consumed with all the theological nuances of the beatitudes lit up with an epiphany of sorts. As I watched these carefree trekkers who were spending nearly every last dime they had on this trip, I realized they were happy. "Blessed are the poor in Spirit."

Today I made two visitations. The first was to an elderly lady in a nursing home. The facility has been her residence for the past 9 months, and she does not like it. She has no surviving family to visit her, and thus she depends on caring people from her congregation to keep her updated on the events of the world. I could tell by looking at her that she was afraid. Afraid of ending up unable to sit up straight or to communicate the simplest of thoughts. Afraid of dying alone. She was mourning the loss of her freedom and individuality. As I held her hand and prayed with her, all I could think of was, "Blessed are those who mourn."

My second call was to the home of an older couple that are very active in the church. The wife was recently diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis is not good. As I watched her husband feed her and care for her I was struck by his gentle demeanor. Here is a man who has worked his own farm for nearly 50 years. In fact, when I visited a couple of weeks ago, he had just gotten in from making hay on over 100 acres of land. Yet here he was, as gentle as could be, helping his wife by feeding her one spoonful at atime. He never complained, in fact he seemed more than content to do it. "Blessed are the gentle."

Now we look at the beatitudes, and we often list them as qualities we should embrace (but how does one embrace mourning?). But as I looked at these very different people in very different circumstances, I was struck by the fact that Jesus was using these qualities to illustrate that the kingdom of God was available to all people. Whether you feel like "the professional pauper" or are mourning the loss of something/someone dear to you, or are a practitioner of gentility in the face of death itself, the Kingdom is for you. This was my epiphany in the coffee shop: if we look at the beatitudes as merely a list to conform ourselves to, then we commit the sin of the Pharisees and begin a whole new practice of legalism; but if we look at the beatitudes as the extent that God's blessing can reach, we can be assured of being a "blessed" people, no matter our circumstance. No longer are the poor to be considerd poor, for God can bless them despite their poverty. No longer should the mournful be pitied, for God's comforting hand can reach them, even from beyond the grave. The meek in heart are no longer to be considered weak, for God's blessing is giving them the strength to be gentle.

Truly God can bless any person in any circumstance.

This was Jesus's message in the beatitudes.

This should be our message to the world.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Kingdom of the Now, part II

If God's Kingdom is as near as the air we breathe, why is it that we have such difficulty recognizing it? Let's face it, humans tend to believe in what they can see, taste, touch and smell. But Jesus has come on the scene proclaiming a Kingdom that surrounds us as the atmosphere does, but is so large that our galxy fits in one small corner of it. Before we can live according to the rules of this kingdom (which is what we will examine next week), we must first believe that it is what Jesus says it is.

If the Kingdom is all around us then we must first consent to one very important fact; we live in a spiritual world. Despite all that science has taught us, our post-modern culture is starting to awaken to the fact that if we look only at the physical, the BIG questions of life go unanswered.

"Why am I here?"
"What is my purpose?"
"Will I be truly loved?"
"What can I do to make a real difference?"

Look all you want for answers in your science books and nature journals, but no satisfactory answers will emerge. If all we are is a cosmic accident of chemical reactions, then life is random and purposeless.

Something deep within us refuses to accept that we are random. We want meaning. We desire purpose. We long for love and we all desire to leave our impact on the world. These desires are much deeper than carnal instinct, and to satisfy them we must turn to the spiritual realm. Only then will answers start to emerge.

Yet we must be careful, for the spiritual realms are unfamiliar to our physically minded souls. Satan lays in wait behind many a false teacher or vain philosophy. Many, longing for answers, have turned to spiritists, wicca, and othe new age practices to find answers. But these are not of the Kingdom Jesus speaks of. While His kingdom is spiritual, it seeks to help us thrive in the physical world, not retreat from it.

This leads to the second fact we must accept: God's kingdom exists in the physical world. Jesus' words are not the ramblings of a far-east mystic telling us to ostracize the physical world. On the contrary, He is teaching us how to make a real difference. Just read Matthew 4:23-24 and you will see why there was a crowd on the mountain. It was because Jesus was meeting physical needs. He was healing physical bodies. His kingdom, while spiritual in nature, was concerned with the physical welfare of others.

Go through the New Testament and see how often the Church (the physical representation of the Kingdom of the Heavens) is challenged to meet the needs of the poor, the orphaned, the widow, and the hungry. For the world to take our spiritual message seriously, we must take their physical needs seriously. Too often the church emphasizes one over the other. Bread is handed to the hungry with no connection to the Bread of Life. Or, sadder still, the poor are prayed for with nothing being done to clothe them.

Jesus' kingdom is both spiritual and physical. It is too big to be regulated to only one realm. Therefore we, as her citizens, must be concerned with both the physical and spiritual needs amongst our fellow humans. The Kingdom exists in the now, and we must serve others in the moment of their need.

I pray the world sees the immediacy of the Kingdom of the Now. "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!"

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Kingdom of the Now, part I

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" Matthew 4:17

This week I started a sermon series on the greatest sermon ever preached, The Sermon on the Mount. As I introduced the sermon I referenced Matthew 4:17 to indicate the content of Jesus' message. His was the proclamation of an entire kingdom, and not any earthly kingdom, but the kingdom of Heaven itself! For everyone who has longed for a word directly from the Spiritual realm, open your mind and read Matthew chapters 5-7.

But first, before you dive into the message of Heaven, you have to make sure you have a proper understanding of Jesus' statement, "the Kingdom of Heaven." The phrase is unique to Matthew's gospel. The rest of the New Testament writers are content to use the phrase "kingdom of God," but not Matthew. He wants to wake up his Jewish readers. Matthew's purpose in writing his gospel was to prove that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Law and Prophets. Therefore his use of the phrase, "kingdom of heaven" is significant. To a people expecting a political Messiah to establish an earthly reign, Jesus fell short of their lofty expectations. They failed to understand the Kingdom.

Heaven? What do you think of when you hear the word. Pearly gates? Crystal seas? Golden streets and harp music? That's not what the Jews thought. Their understanding of heaven was much simpler. They actually had three "heavens" that they could refer to at any time. The first heaven was the atmosphere of our planet. Literally the air we breathe. The second heaven is what we like to term, "outer space." This heaven is the home of the planets, moon, sun and stars. The third heaven was the spiritual home of God. The throneroom in Isaiah 6 describes this third heaven as understood by the first century Jews.

Now for the mind-blowing part. Jesus doesn't merely say "the kingdom of heaven." No, a literal translation of Matthew's gospel would read "the kingdom of the heavens." What does Jesus mean by "heavens"? What He means is that His kingdom is not confined to any one realm, but all three. The Kingdom is as near to us as the air we breathe, yet expansive enough to envelop the entirety of the universe. His Kingdom exists in this physical world, but is entirely spiritual in nature. In other words, it is in the world, but not of it, just as its citizens are.

But not only that, this Kingsom is "at hand." When I paint, I like to keep a rag at hand in order to clean anyspills or smudges that may occur. When my wife cooks, she likes to keep a pot-holder at hand in order to move a hot pan when the time calls for it. "At hand" means readily accessible. Jesus, in one phrase, is proclaiming that His kingdom is both nearby and readily accessible. The citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom can enjoy the benefits of citizenship now! We too often feel that eteranl life is a future asset. While in some ways it is, it's benefits of joy, power and peace are accessible now! We can start living like we are living forever now. We can enjoy God's presence now. We can be amazed at forgiveness now. That's what makes Jesus' proclamation so life-changing and breathtaking. He is here now, just as he has always been.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

New Discoveries

Wow, it has been nearly two months since I've written! (you may now commence with all the slacker jokes) But what a two months it has been. In eight short weeks I had to do all the things associated with leaving one place of work and going to another. On one end farewells had to be said, social obligations met, loose ends tied up, and boxes were packed while on the other end I was greeting new people, re-adjusting to my surroundings, unpacking the afore-mentioned boxes, getting used to living in a very rural setting (which I love) and discovering my job responsibilities. All this coupled with trying to figure out the best way to get internet connections to the tobacco fields of southern VA has seriously hampered my blogging abilities.

Amidst all this chaos, I have discovered a few things. One is that my children are incredible. In the month since we have arrived they have adapted far better than I had hoped for. They have already made friends, they love the outdoors and not having television for four straight weeks has forced them to find other avenues of entertainment ranging from reading library books in the morning to catching fireflies at night.

Another discovery is that television is overated. Five days ago we had the satellite installed and for the first time in four weeks we had live television. What's amazing is that I doubt we have turned it on for much more than an hour a day since. Without it, we talked more as a family, played more games, read more books and got more work done. While it's nice to watch a ball game and keep up with current events and even enjoy a favorite TV show now and then, I've decided that perhaps a little less TV is exactly what I need.

The final discovery is actually more like a reminder. God has taught me not only over the past several weeks, but over the past four years, that He knows best. I have been reminded constantly of God's promise to Jeremiah, "I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you..." Several times over the last few years I doubted that promise, but what I saw as being stuck and stagnant God saw as a time for growth. He was seasoning and preparing me for His plans and not my own. I pray that my eyes and heart continue to stay open to His will.

Until next time,