The Greatest Love of All

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Courtesy of zygomnesis.com

Courtesy of zygomnesis.com

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13 (NIV)

I am composing this post on February 14th otherwise known as Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to romantic love.  It is unfortunate that the English language, unlike the Greek language has only one word for love.  Having a more developed vocabulary around love I think would help to alleviate our confusion and to clarify our thinking on the topic.  The song, “The Greatest Love of All” first recorded and popularized by George Benson and then rerecorded and made even more popular by Whitney Houston, would tell us that “Learning to love yourself It is the greatest love of all.” This declaration might sound nice, especially set to a beautiful musical arrangement and song so masterfully by Whitney Houston, but is it accurate?

Self-love, in the Greek, narzissismus, from which we get the English word, narcissism, certainly has a negative connotation because it used to describe an inordinate fascination with oneself.  But there is a healthy form of self-love that the scriptures endorse.  The Bible first commands in the Levitical law to, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18- NIV).  This command is repeated numerous times in the NT  (Mat. 19;19, 22:39, Mk. 12:31, 12;33, Lk. 10:27, Rom. 13:9, Gal. 5:14, James 2:8).  Self-love is implied in this command because we are to emulate self-love in loving our neighbor.  In describing the love that a husband it to have for his wife, the Apostle Paul declares self-love as a given, “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:28-29 -NIV). 

While appropriate self-love is important, it is not the “greatest love of all.”  Jesus himself provides the answer in this discourse with his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus of course did lay down life, but while he may have been our friends, his friendship was not initially reciprocated.  Romans 5:6-8 tells of Christ unfathomable expression of love, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Modern western society tends to speak of love in the expression of feelings or emotion.  While feelings are encapsulated in love, they are not the basis for love.  True love is a volitional act of the will.  The Bible describes love, but through my studies of the scripture, I have yet to find a definition of love.  I like the definition of love first shared with me years ago by the now late Rev. Jerry Henry.  He defined love as follows:

Love is doing what needs to be done in a spirit of self-sacrifice even when we don’t feel like it and the object of our love doesn’t deserve it. 

Sounds a lot like God’s love for us.

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Look Before You Heap! – Five Lessons in Dealing with Difficult People

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Photo courtesy of ethicsalarm.com

Photo courtesy of ethicsalarm.com

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12: 20b-21 (NIV)

God often provides us with, ahem, “character development opportunities” disguised as difficult people.  We can avoid some difficult people, but others we cannot because they are work colleagues, bosses, or perhaps even reside under the same roof.   God afforded me one of these opportunities over the past year, having to interact with a difficult person that I could not otherwise avoid.  I have had to learn, and in some cases, relearn the following lessons that I want to share with you:

  1. Pray for the good of the difficult person.  This is certainly easier said than done.  We are tempted to pray for the demise of those we deem as our enemies.  We’d prefer to look to some of the prayers of David in the imprecatory Psalms where he prays for the destruction of his enemies as our model prayers.  Instead let’s look to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the early church concerning treatment of their enemies found the verses at the beginning of the post.   Paul says by treating an enemy, i.e. difficult person, well, we’re actually “heaping coals of fire on his head.” The New Living Translation interprets the colloquialism this way, “they [your enemies] will be ashamed of what they have done to you.”  The Apostle does not write it, but certainly implies that if we treat our enemies harshly, we will end up feeling worse in the process.  I can tell you from personal experience that thinking ill of the difficult people in your life does not make you feel better, but ironically worse.
  2. Do not vilify the difficult person.  It is easy to see the difficult person as the devil incarnate, an all grown up version of Rosemary’s baby.  We may seek out others who share our views about the difficult person to validate our own feelings.  Seeing the difficult person as a caricature devoid of any redeeming qualities makes it easier for us to hate them.  Truth be told, there are very few sociopaths among us.  The difficult person in your life is not likely the next Hitler, Stalin or Kim Jong-il.
  3. Do not read ill intent into the difficult person’s action.  It is easy to construct a narrative reading ill intent into the difficult person’s actions.  This narrative may be based on our previous interactions with the difficult person, coupled with our distorted views based on past hurts we’ve experienced.  The leadership consulting practice, Gap International has coined a phrase for our collection of thoughts about others – files.  Think of a cabinet stuffed with manila folders, filled with papers.  These files frame all of our interactions with the difficult person.  If we hope to find some common ground with the difficult people in our lives, we must purge the files we have about them.
  4. Pray to see the difficult person in your life as God sees them.  You might see a difficult person in your life as your own personal nemesis, but God sees him or her as a hurt, wounded individual in need of salvation, grace and healing.  You may be familiar with the phrase, hurt people, hurt people.”  The difficult person in your life may be acting out of their own pain and hurt, and you just happen to be in way.  If you see the difficult person in your life as a hurting individual, you will more likely show compassion to him or her. 
  5. Set appropriate boundaries with the difficult person.  Seeking the difficult person’s good does not mean you have suffer harm as a result.  You should seek your good and the difficult person’s good simultaneously.  If you suffered harm from the difficult person in the past, it will mean that you must courageously set boundaries to guard yourself against future harm.  If you struggle in this area, I would recommend as a first step you read the excellent book, Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

We all want the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, but the fruit must be cultivated.  It does not just magically appear.  In nature, fruit trees must be planted and tended carefully, sometimes for years before fruit appears.  The deep furrows your soul may be suffering now will yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness later, if you allow them to do so. (Hebrews 12:11).

I’ve listed five lessons I’ve learned in dealing with difficult people, but I’d love to hear yours.  Please leave your comments.

What is Your God Narrative?

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low-flow-shower-head-TP-md

If God is for us, who can be against us? – Romans 8:31b (NIV)

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast from Michael Hyatt, which I highly recommend, entitled “Change Your Story, Change Your Life.” To introduce the podcast, Hyatt said this, “Inside your head and mine, there is a narrator. He or she is constantly telling us stories. These stories shape how we perceive reality. In fact, if we don’t intervene, these stories can shape our destiny for the worse. Or, if we are intentional and take control of the narrative, these stories can shape our destiny for good.”

This podcast got me thinking that our narrator also extends to our views about God.  As A.W. Tozer famously wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  Our God narrative in large measure determines whether we live a defeated life or whether we have victory in Christ.

Our view of God is shaped by a number of influences.  Our families of origin and our upbringing greatly shape our view of God.  Parents are generally the first authority figures a child encounters, and are essentially a surrogate for God in the early life of a child.  This is especially true of the father.  The God of the Bible communicates in the masculine voice.  He is presented as God the Father.  Dysfunction in the father / child relationship will likely negatively impact how that child sees God.   If a father mistreats a child through abuse or neglect; that child will likely struggle to see God in a positive light.

Our experiences influence our God narrative. If we experience loss or trauma, we may wonder why God did not protect us from those outcomes and struggle with trusting him.

What we have been taught by others about God shape our views of him.  If, for example, you are exposed to legalistic teaching about God, you may come to view God as a punitive taskmaster waiting to catch you doing something wrong.

Lastly, our God narrative is influenced by the enemy of our souls, Satan.  1 Peter 5:8 tells us that, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Satan tempted our first parents, Adam and Eve, he tempted Jesus, and he certainly tempts us today.

Our God narrative might be shaped by various influences, but ultimately it needs to be shaped by God himself if we are to experience his abundance.  Our carefully constructed God narrative needs to be held up to the true template of scripture to understand what God says about himself.  We must be wary to not allow our influences to clog and distort this true view of God.  I recently completed some overdue household maintenance that helped to drive home this point for me.

Last weekend I changed the chlorine filter on the showerhead in our sons’ bathroom.  The filter should be changed every six months, but only God’s knows the last time it was changed!  The flow from the showerhead had slowed to just something north of a trickle, so I could put off the task no longer.  The filter housing had become so stuck to the point that I had to use extra-large pliers to apply the necessary torque to take the housing apart.  Upon examining the old filter, it was heavy, filled with sediment and covered in lime scale.  The new filter by contrast was light and clean.   Upcoming replacing the filter, the water from the showerhead once again flowed freely.

What’s the point?  Even with the old filter the water at the source never really stopped flowing.  However the flow was blocked by the dirty filter.  Our influences can over time negatively impact our God narratives and thwart the flow of his blessings like a dirty filter.  You might need the help of a trusted friend, pastor or counselor to replace your filter, but you owe it yourself.   Doing so will allow you to fully partake in the free flow shower of God’s blessings.

Just a Mile Away From Home

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Holly the Cat

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 (NIV)

Cats have long been internet darlings, usually for their hilarious antics captured on video.  I typed “cat videos’ in a Youtube search, and it returned about 1,890,000 results.  The internet is currently astir about a torstoiseshell cat named Holly, but not because of some cute video that her owners posted online that went viral.   Holly had gone missing from her owners, the Ritchers, while on vacation in Daytona Beach, FL, 190 miles away from the family home in West Palm Beach.  After two months Holly was found just a mile away from her home.

The Mazzola family had taken in the emaciated and apparently stray Holly.  For a week the family fed the cat and nursed her back to health before taking her to a vet.  Barb Mazzola asked the vet whether a microchip had been imbedded into Holly that could identify her owners.  As it turns out, there was, and Holly and the Ritchers were reunited.

Scientists have marveled at how Holly managed to find her way back so close to home.  Other animals are known for the keen homing instincts, but not cats.  As incredible as this story is, the truth is Holly would have likely stayed with the adopted family had it not been for the implanted microchip.   She would have lived out the rest of her days, just a mile away from home.

We live an age of religious pluralism, that essentially says all religions are the same and “all paths lead home.”  Public references to God have become increasingly vague as to intentionally not call out a Christian God.  Since 911 there has been an effort to synthesize the differences among Christianity, Judaism and Islam using the term from the Koran, “People of the Book” referring to non-Muslin adherents to faiths with a revealed scripture.  After years of standing separate and distinct from Protestantism and other branches of Christianity, the Mormon Church has launched an ad campaign portraying itself as a mainstream Christian alternative.

Do all paths truly lead home?  Anyone who undertakes even a causal study of various religious systems and their sacred writings will quickly conclude they are in conflict.  This is not to say certain universal virtues may not be taught across many systems including, goodness, truthfulness, honor, compassion and devotion.  All truth is God’s truth wherever it may be found.  The law of gravity is true for all. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or agnostic alike will meet with similar results if they decide to test the universal truth of this law by jumping off a building.

There are some who are not adherents to any one religion but pick and choose from they like best from various faith systems.  This approach results in ultimate confusion.  We’ve already concluded various religions conflict beneath the surface. Following this cafeteria religion, i.e. a little of this and a little of that, is like getting conflicting turn by turn directions from a GPS.  You will end up lost.

Against all of these claims of various ways, Jesus Christ makes the bold, audacious and non-PC claim he is the way, the truth and the life and that no one can come to the Father except through him.

Bridges must be completed in order to be useful.  A partially constructed bridge is no good at all.  The Fort Duquesne Bridge in Pittsburgh was affectionately called the ‘bridge to nowhere’ after construction concluded on it main span in 1963.  Due to delays in acquiring property rights, the bridge lacked access ramps on one side. The bridge sat suspended in midair, rendering it useless for another six years.  One man found this out the hard way when he drove off of the bridge in 1964.

The universal truths contained in belief systems apart from Christianity are sufficient to partially construct a bridge, but not to complete it.  Follow them and you will end up like Holly, a mile away from home.  Being a mile away from home is not really being home at all.

NOTE: I am migrating my website from a hosted WordPress site to a self-hosted WordPress site.  This will give me greater autonomy over the look and content of my site.  For example, ads will no longer be able to be placed on my site without my permission.  I do not anticipate any impact in your ability to access my site, but if does occur I ask for your patience and forgiveness:)

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“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ – Matthew 22:8-9 (NIV)

The US Presidential inauguration kicked off the season of parties, balls and gala for the powerful, rich and famous.  The season continues and rounds into form with this weekend’s Super Bowl.  There will be countless Super Bowl parties, but I’m not referring to the kind where hot wings and nachos are on the menu.  I’m talking about the kind of parties attended by “A-listers” where formal tickets are issued and scanned for admission by security and where gift bags of expensive tchotchke are distributed to people who really don’t need them.  The celeb party season rounds to a close later this month with the  Oscars and all its parties.

In the text above Jesus tells a parable that started out with a VIP guest list, but ended up being an open call.  A king’s son, a prince, was getting married so it seems, and the king sent his servants out far and wide to invite the movers and shakers (Matt 22:3).  The king enticed the invited guests with a menu of oxen and fatted calf, yet they still did not come. A parallel telling of the parable in Luke reveals the guests offered every imaginable excuse for not coming (Luke 14:18-21).  Upon hearing about the number of declined invitations, the frustrated king extended an open invitation to all.

The king in the parable is God and his son is of course Jesus Christ.  God called the Jews to be his chosen people to showcase himself to the rest of humanity.   The Jews largely rejected Jesus’ messianic claims.  John 1:11 states, “He [referring to Jesus] came unto his own and own received him not” (KJV).  Jesus’ death and resurrection become a gateway for God’s message of salvation to all humanity.  The invitation to the wedding feast was extended to all.

The King of King’s invitation is to the ultimate party, the wedding feast of the Lamb of God – an eternal celebration in God’s presence.  The best thing about this party is that everyone is invited!  You don’t have to been on the Forbes 400 richest people list or trending on Twitter.

However, like many exclusive engagements admittance is based on who you know.  You must know the bridegroom – Jesus Christ.   Knowing not from a sense of giving mere mental assent to his existence as a historical figure or teacher of moral principles, but knowing from a sense of placing your very life in his hands.  It is this transfer of trust that purchases your wedding attire and admittance to the party.  In the parable those who were attired inappropriately were cast out of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:11-14).

The invitation has gone out.  My question is, have you RSVP’ed in the affirmative?  If you have, terrific.  My second question is, are you telling others about the party?  In the Lucan account of the parable the master tells his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full”(Luke 14:23)(NIV).

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let each one who hears them say, “Come.” (Revelation 22:17a).

What NOT to Crowdsource

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When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” – Matthew 27:24 (NIV)

Crowdsourcing has really changed the way that solutions are found, funds are raised and products are launched.

If you’re not familiar with the term, crowdsourcing, it refers to broadcasting problems to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Potential solvers, i.e, the crowd, submit their solutions. Instead of engaging traditional funding sources such as lenders and venture capitals, fledging entrepreneurs can now raise capital for their projects through crowdfunding websites such as indiegogo, and kickstarter.  I just read in the business section of my local paper today about a woman who raised $2,000 to send herself to clown school in Paris using this approach. (No, I’m not making this up!)

I believe there is an innate appeal to crowdsourcing because it engages the masses and transfers power from the traditional gatekeepers.  If you think about, America Idol essentially crowdsources the selection of its winners to those willing to simply pay for the cost of a text.

Despite its rising popularity, there are certain things that should never be crowdsourced – the critical decisions that only you and I can make.

Before the word crowdsourcing was ever conceived, Pontius Pilate put the concept into practice to a disastrous end by condemning Jesus Christ to be crucified.  The Sanhedrin Council who tried Jesus did not have the authority to kill him.  Only the Roman Procurator, Pilate could issue such as order.  Pilate knew in his heart of hearts that Jesus was innocent and declared so three times before the Jews. (See Jn 18:38, Jn 19:4 and Jn 19:6).  Pilate’s wife even warned her husband not to crucify him, having dreamt about it (Mat. 27:19).  Yet Pilate, who had previously stirred the ire of the Jews by moving his headquarters from Caesarea to Jerusalem and displaying the names of Roman deities there, did not want any more problems from them.  He was not willing to sacrifice his political career so instead he sacrificed the life of an innocent man by appeasing the crowd.

Scripture also contains other crowdsourcing pioneers who met with similar results:

  • Aaron listened the crowd’s request to make a golden calf to worship after Moses had been on the mountain longer than they expected. (Exodus 32:1-4)
  • Saul offered a burnt sacrifice instead of waiting for the prophet Samuel to do so when his men became fearful and started to desert him when facing the Philistines. (1 Sam 13:1-13)

I am not suggesting to not seek out Godly counsel when faced with difficult decisions.  In fact. scripture encourages us to do so (Pro. 15:22).  There are others times when facing decisions, that the right choice is evident even if it is not easy or popular.  That is not a time for crowdsourcing. In those cases we must resist the temptation to make the easy choice, which only brings temporary relief but also carries with it long term negative consequences.

I love this tweet I read from Kent Julian a few days ago.  “Decision based on fear = bad decision.”

Where Prayer Cannot Be Removed (Without Your Consent)

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The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results. – James 5:26 (NLT)

There is a tension when it comes to public prayer in the United States.  Such prayers, especially those in conjunction with government sponsored events, have become watered down with oblique references to God.  Living in a pluralistic society, care is given not to offend adherents of various religions, including those who do not advocate religion at all.

I was reminded of this fact recently with Monday’s inauguration of President Barach Obama. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medger Evans, delivered the prayer for the occasion.  Within several hours of her prayer, the Huffington Post reported that Ms. Evers-Williams had incorrectly identified President Obama as the nation’s 45th president.  (He’s in fact the nation’s 44th president.)  The report made no mention that Ms. Evers-Williams also incorrectly quoted from the Pledge of Allegiance, omitting the phrase “under God.”

Please note that Ms. Evers-Williams did end her prayer with the phrase, “In Jesus’ name and the name of all who are holy and right we pray. Amen.”  By inserting the phrase, “and the name of all who are holy and right,” Ms. Ever-Williams appeased non-Christians who might find it offensive to pray singularly in the name of Jesus. (Click here for a link for the full transcript of the prayer.)

My initial critique of the inaugural prayer quickly turned to a critique of my own thinking.  I realized I was falling victim to thinking that plagues too many Christ-followers. I was expecting the government to endorse my faith.

We decry what appears to be ongoing removal of references to God and Jesus Christ from the public square.  Yet, a careful study of the scripture reveals that God did not depend upon the government to be an agent of evangelism, especially in the New Testament.  In fact the early church faced persecution from the Roman government at various times.  This persecution did not weaken the church, but actually had the opposite effect.  It strengthened it.  Persecution is one of the fertilizers that God allows to grow his church.

This is not to say that government as various times has not come to aid of the church or been on the side of right.  But often these efforts have had their beginnings with individuals or small groups of courageous people who were willing to take a stand.  Consider William Wilberforce’s years’ long struggle to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  Some have questioned President Abraham Lincoln’s tactics and movements in leading efforts to abolish slavery in the US, but the fact remains he did sign the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, the Executive Order declaring slaves free in the Confederacy.  Lincoln later pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which formally outlawed slavery in the country.

In a republic like the United States we have many opportunities to influence the direction of our government. As citizens we can exercise our right to vote, lobby our elected officials or even run for political office.  However we often overlook our most potent influence – prayer.  God ordained the office of government.  Proverbs 21:1, reminds us, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (NIV).  Prayer stirs the heart of God who in turns stirs the heart of the king.

While public references to God in prayer may continue to decline, neither government nor any other entity can remove prayer from the most important place – my heart and yours.  Only we can do that.  We sometimes treat prayer as our last line of defense but we must remember it is the first arrow we should pull from our quiver.

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