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Christmas Coming Early

Posted on by Ken Posted in Newsletters | Leave a comment

Christmas is coming early this year!  Well I don’t mean that it’s actually being moved or anything like that, but I’m going to do a Christmas letter in November.  I don’t usually do ‘holiday’ letters.  To me they are just too common, too predictable, and I usually shy away from being that routine.  However, this time I’m making an exception.  Why, you say?  Well, I just heard a program on FOTF this week and someone hinted on the program that it’s been attributed that Oprah rejected the Gospel message of her childhood because she could not respect, could not understand the characteristic that God is a jealous God.  She understood the word jealous to be a term that is considered by all to be a negative characteristic.  I can’t blame her for that, we sure teach ourselves that message.  Kind of one of those, ‘I’m jealous and you had better not even look the other way or I’ll blow my top kind of God’.  Anyway, that caught my attention, and now somehow I’ve got to turn that into a Christmas letter in November for you.  Here goes.  But before we start I need you to slow down, relax, turn off television or the world, take a deep breath and then consider…..

Scripture is always a good way to do a Christmas letter: ‘a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel’, Isaiah 7:14.  Christ’s birth the center of our story.  Hey, I’m already into Christmas.  The literal Hebrew text there is stating ‘with us God’!  That’s not to be interpreted as a greeting but a very firm, meaningful declaration. The Hebrew word for with is IM and the word for God is EL.  Im-manu-el!  Now what if that scripture’s true!  And what if Romans 8:35-39, ‘who can separate us?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or peril or sword…I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, not things present or things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ were true?  Have you ever really thought long about the fact that the Holy Spirit of God has come to comfort us, is present with us wherever we are, no matter what we are doing?  ‘With us God’, (Immanuel) has a much ‘weightier’ meaning than we have given it credit for.  God being with us was the Gospel plan all along, and it is something that carried the greatest importance for Him and for us.  In the Old Testament, God was on the prophets, priests and kings.  No one else experienced Him; they could only be told of Him by the three anointed positions of the Old System.  That has changed and it has been changed because it was the will of God to change it.  IM within this context is a heavy word.  It’s not like someone is just in the same room with you, not someone only occupying the adjoining space with you.  It’s not someone simply watching from across the room.  In this word is a deep mingling of God and us.  Jesus said that it was better that he went away and the Holy Spirit comes for us.  Why?  Simply, he could be in Jerusalem but not in Southern Illinois at the same time.  That changed, it was better that Jesus, who was in contact with many, leave and ascend to the Father so that the Holy Spirit would come and could be in contact with all.   All could be touched, not just those in Jerusalem!  It was God’s desire to be with us anywhere and everywhere!  Unlike the Old System, where God was ‘on them’, in the economy of Grace and the Spirit of God, He is ‘in them’.

Many years ago I had, for a very short time, too short a time actually, a double barreled shotgun.  It was made of Damascus steel.  That is very special steel.  The way that original Damascus steel was forged has been lost, having been perfected in medieval times.  Damascus steel was said to be the hardest steel created.  It was used for ancient swords.  It could hold an edge that was said to ‘cut through a rifle barrel’.  It was tough. Somehow, Damascus steel, being ancient, took the impurities found in the forging and changed them molecularly and created a sword resistant to shattering.  This process of forging mingled the minerals until you could not tell where one starts and the other ends. Damascus steel is one in that sense, yet you can clearly see in the steel itself the obvious mingling of the forger with its waves of steel.  It was a nice antique and I still kind of kick myself for getting rid of it.

That mingling of Damascus steel is a lot like what the word with (‘im’) means.  All such Bible words translated into the English (such as dwell and abide) are related to ‘im’.  They are emotional, passionate words given with great feeling and hope.  Remember Joseph, having been falsely accused and having been sold into slavery by his brothers, sitting in prison and telling his story at every turn, he remembered that ‘God was with Joseph’, mingled with his life, part of every moment.  David also knew the joy of that.  Read the 3rd, 23rd and 32nd Psalm for clues of how much David knew that God was with him.  David wrote the 23rd Psalm while being chased by his own son whose purpose was to kill David– read that Psalm with that in mind!  Obviously, it would take too long to express all the examples and all the passion of what ‘with us God’ means for us in this letter.

Now, what if He was with us at Walmart, the Civic Center, at work, at home, not just at church, but everywhere?  Would that change your confidence?  Would it make a difference knowing God was present with us all the time, in the good times and the hard times?  Present in our celebrations and our mourning.  Not just observing them but a part of actually going through them with us.  Would that make a difference?  Well, I believe He does just that.

That brings me back to Oprah.  Apparently, she could not reconcile the thought of a jealous God, seeing that as a negative, angry, getting even kind of God.  That’s not what the ancient word means at all.  Jealous is not defined in the typical English fashion found in our traditions. The true meaning of that original word is to identify a ‘passionate, longing of love,’ Godly Love, for the object of that Love.  Our Jealous God is a God consistent with the Gospel Good News, who because of His passion to be ‘with us’ eagerly seeks us out.  That with us is not just a shopping trip to the store and hope we find a bargain on the trip.  It’s a fire (fire like that forged steel sits in) that burns out of the coals of His Love for us, not a jealous God who is seeking His own way or His own purposes, but aggressively Loves us.  He is jealous for us because He cares for us so much.  In the original language, the world God so loved that he gave His only Son, that God is jealous, so much that His Love drove Him to Grace and Mercy for us.  Made a way for us.  Prepared a place for us.  Sought us out.  Became Sin for us.  That’s something we need to permit to happen in us.  This Gospel is Good News but it’s entirely up to us whether we accept and believe God Loved us that much that He did that much for us.

Now you have to be doing one of two things to come up with Oprah’s kind of objection about God.  You either are too lazy to search out the truth and the real answer, or you are silly enough to use it as an excuse to justify what you wanted all along, hoping to find some reason not to believe.  I have never, after searching and seeking out the heart of God, been disappointed in that chase.  He is always much more grand, much more loving than I had imagined.  His name will be called Immanuel…with us God!  Can you let that happen?  Can you let that be true? Can you not doubt that?  This Gospel is not about how God was with us in the past, not about Him being with us in the future.  While both of those are true, we must come to believe that God is with us now.  His presence invites us to leave those things that are behind and not speculate about the future, but be in His presence now. It’s not a supernatural moment we need, it’s the reality of He is in every moment, super or not.  The question is not whether He is present, the question is are you!

‘Glory to God in the highest, Peace, Good Will toward men.’  (Luke 2:14)  Christmas in November.

Shout My Lungs Out

Posted on by Ken Posted in Newsletters | Leave a comment

I don’t know about you (although I’m suspicious) but I’ve been struggling lately, wrestling with my heart and my head.  It’s not the kind of struggling that I expected to be doing right now.  I’m not struggling between believing and unbelief.  Thank God that’s been settled for some time now and I don’t revisit that devilish thought.  It’s not about doubting anything related to my Faith.  I’m not being pulled away from the Gospel by some great sin or giving up on anything.  I’m not losing sleep worrying about finances, health, relationships, kids, family, or friends.  No, some days I’m struggling to keep from ‘shouting my lungs out’ about the great love of God that has neutralized all those worries and fears mentioned previously.

We were traveling west on Route 13 a few evenings ago, part of the great migration of people that land at the nearest Dairy Queen, and I was looking at the sunset, just thinking how terrific it was to have the ‘eyes to see the hand-work of God’ so obviously displayed in front of me.  My first thought was let’s just get out of the car in the middle of the road and praise our lungs out.  My second thought was this is so much like the sunsets I’ve seen in Colorado at 10,000 feet (my high water mark of assessing God’s creation and my favorite place on earth to appreciate His beauty).  Well, we didn’t stop the car and I didn’t make a fool of myself by diving into the floorboard of the car and worshipping.  But that evening reminded me of how thankful I am to have found a place to keep my heart.  In spite of everything that’s going on politically, culturally and especially financially, I’m just not discouraged by all the disturbing bad news.  And, I really don’t have a great miracle to share from the past couple days and no immediate testimony to tell anyone about; it’s just the accumulation of years of the Faithfulness of God in my life and the consistent, obvious ‘mingling’ of God’s Life in mine.  In fact, in my mind I get to thinking it’s kind of crazy to have found such Peace, used to be afraid that it was just simple apathy rather than the Comfort of God.  My brain tries to remind my heart…’stop it, don’t be so foolish,’ but so far my heart wins every time.  The struggle I’m talking about is the awareness of simple praise and at that same time, the awareness that my brain is trying to balance that with the reasonable and logical at the very same time.  But, it makes for a great car ride anyway.

That confidence is so different than having confidence in things or stuff.  Have you ever stopped to think about how ‘ridiculous’ the Faith that we have been given to believe in is compared to all the worldly ‘wisdom’ we find?  I don’t remember where I read it, but years ago I ran across someone’s comparison of our Faith and the other religions of the world.  We really have such a ‘weird’ belief system with this Faith.  Now I say weird with all the respect I can muster up because it’s that uniqueness that makes it so believable for me.  I don’t think we could create this kind of Creator.  The God we all call Father calls Himself a Friend to us.  He’s humble rather than untouchable.  No other God stoops, no other weaves His Life into the lives of the creature in a personal way.  We have a God that wants to be united with us and even suffered to make that possible.  The gods of human imagination are indifferent to the human race.  They tower above humanity and toy with it, but they never invest in people’s lives, having an interest in people only to serve their own needs.  Our Father is not self-centered, not a taker but a giver.  Ours had staggering plans for us, before the foundation of the world He made plans for us.  He was determined to enter into the problem and bless us with a Life and fullness of Joy, eager to know us intimately, not only stooping down and touching us but actually stooping low and lifting us up to His Life.

That’s what makes me pause and keep hold of this Faith so securely.  It’s so upside down compared to religions.  No human’s mind has ever invented such a God.  No man has chosen to serve such a God in the history of religions, except, that is, the Christian peoples.  As C. S. Lewis said, Jesus is either a lunatic or he’s exactly who he said he is, he must be one or the other.  The Christian God is interested in a deep and truthful relationship with us, not just relationship alone, but much more of a union with us.  So much so that what is His becomes ours, and what we bring He joins with us and shares this life with us in the present.  God is a God of relationship, having Father, Son and Spirit in One.  All blended into singleness that advantages the Others, each with visions of companionship with each other, loving One another, caring for One another.  That God has turned His (Their) attention to the creature.

In Faith, we believe there was a time when there was no universe, no solar system, no earth, no humanity, and no biology at all.  The Christian God, before the whole thing began, was compelled to create all things in the purpose of His heart and in doing so, did it not to toy with the creation but mingled with it.  It was a determined heart to create it just this way.  The world we live in, with its trouble and strife (and Joy and Peace through Christ), was not plan B.  This was The Plan.  I might not understand why it’s the way that it is, but it is exactly what God purposed to do.  Something about this Creation and us as His creatures is profound, and no matter how it goes here, I truly believe that God had an eternal reason for us going through this thing called life on this dust ball in the universe.  I know this for sure, when Adam and Eve fell, our God, the Christian God, instead of judging them and damning them, plunged into the storm and ruin rather than walk away disgusted.  Rather than leaving us to the results of that action, to the chaos, misery, brokenness and bondage, our God immediately met us in it, rescued us from it.  And, He continues to have that purpose today.  And when I see sunsets and know the companionship of my wife and the friendship of friends and the joy of parenting and the moments of Praise and the revelation of God’s Love I know He is in the middle of my Life and sometimes I just want to scream that out!

Ours is a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45).  In that testimony, the merchant did not make the decision he made on the back of religious tradition, it was not about religious duty.  He was acting on an encounter that had won his heart.  It’s the same encounter that most of us have had as well.  Jane and I have two grandsons.  They, like us, will have to have their own encounter of inspiration.  They will not be able to live on the Joy of their ancestors any more than Jane and I could live on the Faith of our parents and grandparents.  Each generation must seek Him.  Only knowing Him will set them free from the worry and the fret of the daily headlines, only meeting Him will make them want to stop their rocket cars in the middle of their highway and shout.  We are at a crisis point I think in the Church.  Our notions about God and our unique encounters with God will be replaced with their encounters.  Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene after His resurrection were: ‘Whom do you seek?’  That confronts each new generation and really what Jesus’ question boils down to is this: Is it Life that you want or something ‘less’.  If it’s Life that you want, then My Life is all satisfying, fulfilling and without measure.  The price we will pay is simply seeking Him; once found, He can, if we permit, change our experience from struggling to believe, into struggling to keep from shouting our lungs out!

Three In One

Posted on by Ken Posted in Newsletters | Leave a comment

Everything I’m running into recently is saying the same thing to me. I’m reading two books at once, unrelated to one another. One is scholarly and the other may be written by a ‘goof ball’; I don’t know yet, but they both shout the same message. We just got in Jason Gray’s new song, “I Will Find A Way,” (comes out on his new cd this month) and it says the same thing, talks of Jesus’ incarnation. Jason has sent a link to the site that has the text that was the inspiration for that song: Walt Wangerin’s “An Advent Monologue.” (I think that it’s in Walter’s book called Ragman.) Anyway, it’s very rare that everything going on around me seems to suggest the same message; I just thought it strange and strange enough to talk about in this newsletter.

Things are just weird. I see so much evidence of God in everyday life, and at the same time I see so much aggressiveness against the Love of God around me. Sometimes I get a kick out of how people view my Faith. I mean friends and relatives that simply think that I’m just stuck in tradition and locked up in yesterday. I know my gray hair doesn’t help dispel that image, but I just know what they’re thinking as we talk: ‘poor thing, sad really!’ Now, that disappoints me a bit. I’ve spent many, many years evaluating, reading, studying : pages and pages, tape after tape, DVD after DVD, trying to settle in my heart this Faith that I’ve hung on to for so long. It was in April 1963 that I came to the place of not being able to dismiss the Gospel in my life any longer. Even back then, people didn’t give believers much credit for their Faith. I remember people calling Faith a ‘crutch’ that silly folks needed to get along in the world. I mean, it was just my ‘inability to cope’ that led me to be ‘religious’. Yep, ‘only very weak people really believed! They had no choice, the poor simpletons.’ Now, I wouldn’t mind that people think I’m silly if they at least gave me a little credit for having completed a complex and critical search, but, No! They have to put me in a basket where people of Faith are just unaware and unlearned. But I don’t feel that’s the case. I’ve been willing to ‘not believe’ if I can just be convinced; but in all those years, I just can’t come to the same conclusions that unbelievers can so easily come to.

But none of this is new; it’s as old as when the message began. Remember what Moses wrote about in 1Kings 19:18? Elisha was complaining to God that all had lost their way, turned from God, but God assured him that He still had 7000 Israelites that had not bowed the knee to Baal. Feel like Elisha sometimes? So little hope and so few believers- that sounds just like today, but it was thousands of years ago at a time of little hope and little understanding and hardly any obedience to the Word of God. All was seemingly lost. However, now as then, we should have hope, even if the ‘poll numbers’ look bleak. Israel, God’s chosen, just didn’t get it even after being delivered from the secular grasp of Egypt. Following Moses, the Prophets declared their messages about God and Israel with little hope. The number of believing people in the whole world was down to just a handful. It was a terrible moment for Faith. Those Prophets were, for the most part, outside the religious community, not part of the in-crowd, rascals mostly, numbering only a few. They kept the Faith for hundreds of years, years that were certainly discouraging years for Prophets. Well, that is unless you’re a Prophet that knows and believes that God is with them no matter what is going on around them or to them. These were men and women called by the love of God to share His ways, His heart. They were not people inspired by their surroundings to Faith, rather they were men and women inspired in spite of their surroundings. They were inspired simply because they knew and were convinced that God was with them. That is what everything is saying to me now. That’s what keeps coming out of the couple of books I’m reading, the song I’m singing and the experience I’m experiencing.

Seems everywhere I turn that’s the sign I’m getting. God is present with you. Maybe that’s not big enough for some, but for me, knowing it in my heart departmentalizes everything else into sub-levels of living. God was with Adam, with Moses, with David, and with Paul; no matter where they were, He was with them. The simple fact of His being with them brought their purpose and their futures into view. It does the same for us. Knowing that the Kingdom of God is not meat nor drink but Righteousness, and Peace and Joy in the Spirit of God is the first thing of Grace. My Faith is being convinced of something that is not shaken by what goes on around me. And, it’s something that I do not hold on to out of some weakness, but its very nature strengthens me.

Now for those folks that pronounce ‘poor thing’ over me, there is loneliness in that thought. They have to live with that loneliness within their lives that I do not have to bear. My Faith is not a tradition; in fact I’m kind of repelled by traditions. It has been well thought out, it’s an experienced Faith. It’s not fear that drives me. It’s not simply a lack of searching out the truth that causes me to trust in a 6000 year old message. For all the critics, I’m not hanging on to something because I bought into it years ago and just won’t admit that I’ve been wrong. No, I’m holding on because I truly believe, having been convinced of something worth living for, worth carrying to my death.

C.S. Lewis called it a ‘dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal (Father, Son, Spirit) life’ saying that it was to be played out in each one of us. It was a mingling of God the Father, and the Son and the Spirit in our lives. It is not necessary that it be predictable, not necessary that it be as we imagine, it is not obligated to be understood, it is only necessary that we permit it to take place in us: the delight of the Father’s creation, the son’s dying for us and the action of a living Spirit, who has come for us, blended into our lives. The necessary part is the presence of God in our lives. The joy of having found Him, and in doing so, finding something that is bigger, better, more than wonderful to spend our days with. It’s a big picture God, not just of every moment of our lives but for the whole length of our lives. His gift is more than just the sentiment of a Santa’s gift, it’s a gift delivered with great Passion, a gift that came with a huge price and investment on God’s part. It should not be one that we would take for granted, thinking that He might not stay and enforce it. This gift is called an adoption in the Word of God. That’s God’s way of affirming for us that we’re included in Their lives, which means They’re included in ours. It is a mingling of His Life with our life to the point where you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. It’s a daily encounter with the One who imagined a purpose in our lives when we barely can find our way to the store and back. He can be the GPS of our lives and just importantly wants to be a GPS in our lives. Lewis knew that Joy and God were connected, and the one (Joy) did not exist without the other.

Everything we do is God filled. It may not be that we do everything Godly, but God is present and in us, on us, by us, mingling with our very daily lives. Daily, there may not be any burning bushes, no cloud by day and fire by night. He may not be in the wind, in the fire, but He is a small quiet voice for us. He is with us when we understand and He’s with us when we don’t have a clue. He is present in the calamity and in the Peace. We, as believers, should perhaps take no thought for tomorrow but trust in God; we should know He is with us even if there are only 7000 believers that have not bowed the knee to Baal. I have a quote on my desk that stays in front of me always: “Beginning empty handed and alone frightens the best of men. It also speaks volumes of just how sure they are that God is with them.”

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