Walking in Favor

“The Return of the Prodigal Son,” unknown artist, at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City Jan.. 17, 2008. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us about the great joy that filled the house when a son who had run away returned to be reunited with his father and brother.  “For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’” (Luke 15:32).

This son that had run out on his true life and was living another life – one he he believed to be right. Sooner or later, he came to his senses and realized he was living in a nightmare. For him, it was never too late to come home. The story also teaches us something important about our status as Children of God. No matter what we do, or don’t do, we are always his.

I hesitate to use the term “favor” here. It’s also used by some Christians to designate those who have sent in their check, gotten their names on the list and are paid up members in the health and wealth club. These Christians have been taught that “favor” is a status that must be constantly earned and can subsequently be lost. The Christian life is one of losing and finding favor with God. A glorious treasure hunt, chasing after a mysterious Santa Claus.

This isn’t what I mean when I write about “favor” and I don’t think it’s what Jesus taught when he described the way that God wanted to relate to us who believed in Him.

  1. Favor with God is a state that we enter into when first we believe. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)
  2. Walking in God’s favor means to remain in His love. We obey Him and follow Him as disciples because we love him (because He first loved us).  “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”  (John 15:9-10)
  3. As God’s creation, we always have our free will. We choose each day to follow as disciples, deny ourselves and carry our cross. Or, like the Prodigal Son, we makes choices that lead us away into our own pits of disaster. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. (Galatians 5:24-25)

When I am walking in God’s favor, that means that I am no longer living a prodigal life but am instead back home at His side, right where I belong.

Walking in God’s favor means that I am decreasing and He is increasing (John 3:30). This is exactly the opposite advice that the self-help culture we now live in is teaching us. Work harder, find the next trick, manage yourself better.

I experience God’s favor when I am near to Him, not away on my own. His favor makes me more like Him, not a better version of myself.

Each day that I walk in God’s favor is another day closer to His great purpose for me and everyone else.  Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.  (Ephesians 4:21-24)

Slopping pigs doesn’t always seem like a bad thing. I understand they have a great retirement package. There are friends to text and nowhere else to go but up. It is your own journey after all. You make all your own decisions, except when you get hungry or need somewhere to live. Pig keeping may not be where you started out, but it’s where you end up.  It’s where all our own fears one day take us.

“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”  ― William Faulkner

The story of the Prodigal Son reminds us that the only way to walk in favor is to go back home.

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Automatic Faith

Do you drive to work everyday? This “every single day procedure” typically becomes so routine that our brains turn it into automatic thinking. We’ve all experienced it. You arrive at your destination and can’t really remember the trip. That’s what automatic thinking is – our brains can’t process all the information and decisions that we face all day long, so what it does is it takes routine activities out of the “deliberate” and conscious part of the brain and sinks them into the semi-conscious and “automatic” part. In this way, we can accomplish so much more in our busy lives each day.

What I worry about is when my faith drifts into automatic thinking and I’m not really as spiritually conscious as I should be.

Automatic thinking works when it comes to driving to work and other routine activities, I get there every day AND I’m able to think about all sorts of other important items. But I miss everything all along the way. Not that there’s much to see on this same route day after day. But when it comes to my walk of faith – I don’t want to miss ANYTHING.

How to start having a more deliberate walk of faith…

Bring Your Faith Into Present Consciousness

  1. Get up each day and think about all your taken-for-granted blessings FIRST. Let these thoughts fill your mind before everything else crowds in. Letting a blessed life guide your thinking can make you more conscious of everything else.
  2. Watch your speech. How are you framing, defining, declaring the world around you? We develop patterns early on and they become unconscious routes we travel in our interactions. This is usually an automatic activity. It prevents conscious faith. Instead – stop, drop and roll. Wake up and STOP talking like that, DROP all those tired talking points from your speech and then ROLL out a new and conscious perspective each time you open your mouth (maybe you should keep it shut more often?).
  3. Each time a problem, situation, or person crosses your mind – needing to be dealt with somehow – don’t revert back to past patterns (automatically). Instead really think about these situations and apply your faith; how would you want to be treated, what could you give instead of take, what needs some grace for a change?

Instead of Automatic Faith – Deliberate Faith

As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

How do the people around you think about your life?

When we are unconscious of the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our own transformation, we run the risk of living with automatic faith – not really using our faith to live a new life, but keeping it shelved away for a rainy day. It’s there, ready for when the fire alarm sounds or when someone close to us falls into a disaster. But isn’t faith supposed to be a WALK and not a RUN?

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  (Philippians 4:8)

Fixing your thoughts sounds like a deliberate practice doesn’t it. When was the last time you (and your faith) fixed your thinking rather than having your situation determine how you thought about things?

“Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon… healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.” ― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Transformation takes time. Learning to put our faith into practice takes one step at a time. One certain step in the right direction is to be more deliberate about this part of our life and less automatic (and unaware). 

 

Kicking and Screaming All the Way Home

This is a strange title for a post about choosing to follow Jesus as one of his disciples. But when I think about it, so often I’m not all lined up, packed and ready to start the journey (each day). Instead, I am often pulled into the next stage of my own spiritual development kicking and screaming. In the end, I’m glad I got there but always wish I had not fought so much. I’d rather have been more awake spiritually and realized each step of the path before me was leading in the right direction, taking me right where I needed to go. Less kicking and screaming and more surrender and sacrifice is what I want to characterize my life as a follower of the Son of Man.

“However high be your endeavors, unless you renounce and subjugate your own will — unless you forget yourself and all that pertains to yourself — not one step will you advance on the road to perfection.” — John of the Cross

Back in the 1500’s when Saint John of the Cross was living, “perfection” was his way of expressing the desire to be transformed into the image of Christ. What he was writing about was what we now call discipleship. It’s almost impossible to be a disciple of Christ and still want to do things my own way. My prayer here is to ask for forgetfulness about so much that plagues my daily stride, so much that doesn’t really matter.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18

What is it about myself that I have to forget? How do I become invisible? It’s easy to put all my bad habits and nasty qualities on that list. But I’ve also got to put down each one of my hopes and dreams on that list. This is where it gets really difficult. It becomes easier when I turn my gaze away from my own itching fear and list of grievances and toward “the Lord’s glory.” My prayer here is to turn my eyes toward the maker of heaven and earth and to see with the eyes of my spirit.

 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  – Matthew 16:24-25

This doesn’t mean “make sacrifices”, this means to put yourself to death, a humiliating execution, not a quiet suicide in the dark. Withdrawing from the world and all it’s attachments is painful and can be agonizing. We never go quietly.

  • Step out of the boat, then you can walk on water in the right direction.
  • Give what little you have, watch thousands of needs be met.
  • Come back home, see who’s waiting at the gate.
  • Listen to the song of that bird, know that you are loved beyond measure.

I can’t seem to get past all the disappointment, all the lost days. But I’m looking in the wrong direction. Following in my Master’s steps is the only directions to take. It’s grievous because it costs everything. John the Baptist had his own followers before Jesus began His ministry. They asked John who this Jesus was, why he seemed to be taking over (John 3:26-36). Among other things, John said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” That’s the whole thing in a sentence. My prayer is John’s declaration. He would soon be imprisoned and beheaded. Literally put to death. All I have to do is surrender each day and listen to His command, “Come, follow me…”

 

Why Do We Pray, Part 4

We pray out of persistence.

“Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him,  ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’  And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’  But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.” – Luke 11:5-8

Because we have no where else to go…

Because we have absolute trust in God…

Because we have developed a habit of knocking on that door…

Because we know where the real answers lie…

Jesus uses this story to teach us all that when we pray, the one thing we must never do is give up. Faith will never grow in an environment of disbelief, always afraid to stick it’s neck out. Persistence works wonders, even on frustrated neighbors. How effective it must be with God who awaits our searching hearts.

“And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  – Luke 11:9-10

The answers that we seek are to be found at the end of a very persistent journey. Giving up quickly communicates all sorts of messages to others, to me and to God.

  • I’m not really counting on this
  • I can probably take of this myself
  • Who knows what might happen, but I’ll give this a shot
  • Does God really care about what happens to me?

Jesus doesn’t seem to focus much on the answers in his lesson. Developing the habit of prayer. Sticking with it. All the spiritual character that gets built by this practice. This is what enables us to receive a gift larger than any we could ever pray to receive. Praying persistently transforms us.

“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead?  Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not!  So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”  – Luke 11:11-13

Notice the two big lessons here?  God loves us like a parent. How often do you think about God in this way? This was a new kind of idea to Jesus’ audience who had God all figured out as a distant and stern figure. Prayer isn’t about getting something. At its heart, it’s about a relationship. You can’t have a very meaningful relationship with anyone built only on tweets.

The second lesson is that in answer to your prayers He wants to give you a gift you didn’t even know you needed. A bigger gift than you could imagine. He wants to give you Himself. His very Spirit to reside within you to guide, comfort and empower you.

The path to God’s ear is not a difficult or hidden quest. He is awaiting the persistent children who will come knocking, but with certainty.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” ― Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933, 30th President of the United States)

Why Do We Pray?

“When life caves in, you do not need reasons – you need comfort. You do not need some answers – you need someone. And Jesus does not come to us with an explanation, He comes with Himself.” – Bob Benson

Why do we pray? There are many answers to this question. On most we could all agree. Still, I think there are some reasons that are hidden and secret, known only to God.

Here is my start at addressing some of the reasons why I think we pray, why I pray, why God has called all of us to pray.

We pray because we are alone and powerless.

We have all drifted away with our busy lives and then a crisis strikes. There is so much we can fix on our own. These may not be perfect solutions but they are ours. Then something strikes at us that’s just too much. Our self-sufficiency cannot protect us. Most of us want answers right away. An easy and painless solution that will solve the looming threat. Don’t you?

Instead, what we need is a nearness to the living God. The great distraction is the search for a fix. Unfortunately, it is an endless quest, to find answers to problems for a life that keeps coming unraveled. Isn’t there a way to live and experience less aloneness and accomplish more?

For apart from me you can do nothing. – John 15:5

Here Jesus is teaching about the vine and the branches. He is the source of our life and we are to live attached to him, branching out from him, growing out of his will and way.

  1. It seems that we are meant to be doing something with our lives, something that matters.
  2. The plan all along has been to be with God, to live a life that is always in fellowship with him.
  3. To live apart is a disaster, not just a preference (life choice). Read the rest of the parable. Do you smell smoke?
  4. When we pray, we are joined with God – our heart, mind and soul. We all need to live a daily life of prayer so that we will be less prone to wander away from our Heavenly Father.

Our aloneness isn’t the cause of our inner struggles, it’s the effect of living separated from God. What are you doing, thinking, worrying, planning, auto-piloting, judging, failing, reaching? Why are we living any aspect of our lives apart from God?

I doubt most of us consciously make decisions to wander away from our relationship with God. Instead, I think we get distracted by the cares of life. Fast-paced living sets my spiritual attention into an automatic mode. Rituals and routines lose their meaning and purpose. Sometimes I look up and wonder about all the miles and sights that I’ve missed. My attention and soul was somewhere else. What about you?

“My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” – John 10:10

Apart from walking with Jesus each day, you cannot live the rich and satisfying life that he intends for you to live now.  You cannot live in fellowship with God unless you are living in a conversational and transformational relationship. You have to be on speaking terms. You have to realize that things are never going to stop changing. This is an essential reminder that I must look in the eye each day.

Look at what Paul wrote about a life lived in fellowship with God:

“When I think of all this (God’s mysterious plan), I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit.  

Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.  And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.  May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. 

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.”  – Ephesians 3:14-21

Paul had to remain conscious of what God had, was and will do in His great plan. That consciousness on his part was a constant reminder that he was never alone and God’s transformative power was always at work.

Lasting transformation isn’t going to happen on my own. No matter how many self-help books I buy at the airport. We all need a supernatural relationship. Living near to God matters. Living away from him is a fully furnished house you walk around in all alone at night.

But as for me, how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do. – Psalm 73:28

A Slow Death

Why should I feel discouraged and why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, a constant Friend is He,
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

Civilia D. Martin (1905)

 

A friend shared this week about two of his co-workers who were experiencing the most terrible crises in their lives. A bunch of us prayed with our friend, that he would be enabled as an inspiration and help to his friends during their tribulations.

“If your Lord calls you to suffering, do not be dismayed, for He will provide a deeper portion of Christ in your suffering. The softest pillow will be placed under your head though you must set your bare feet among thorns.” – Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)

None of us are really immune from being touched in some way by tragedy. These days, when I bump into monsters in the dark, my question is no longer, “why me?” but instead, “what’s going to happen to me?”

In an earlier post I asked this question about Joseph…

What happened to him during those years in slavery and prison that transformed him into a man who could calmly walk into the court of the most powerful king on earth and bear witness of the power of God?

I was thinking about it again the other day, always reflecting within the boundaries of my own perpetual midlife crisis…when am I going to get out of this quicksand?

Remember, up until the moment Joseph was jumped by his own brothers, beaten and bloodied, dropped into a pit and then sold into slavery…his father had made him the center of their universe. He was younger, didn’t have to work so much, and got to dress really well. In his world it was all about him.

What happens to us on the inside when our world collapses, what we thought we could depend upon, what we had built and all the careful plans we had made? What’s the game plan when:

  • kids grow up and make all the wrong decisions
  • your career falls apart out of the blue
  • the spouse you always depended upon takes flight
  • your health becomes the most urgent crisis – right now
  • God doesn’t seem to answer anymore

How do we survive while imprisoned by tragedy? How do we make it one more day – and then month after month? Peter advises us to bow down (worship), submit your will and fears, then let God carry your heavy baggage. Sometimes this is a moment-by-moment act, every time the fear hits.

So bow down under God’s strong hand; then when the time comes, God will lift you up. Since God cares for you, let Him carry all your burdens and worries. – 1 Peter 5:6-7 (The Voice)

No one else here has ever or will ever care about you as much as God does and always will. Do you believe this? Do you trust this? Are you willing to put it to the test? It’s not a once-and-for-all decision. It’s something you have to do each and every day of your life, until it becomes a habit, like dreaming.

Something happened to Joseph in that dark prison. He probably spent more than ten years of his life locked up with not much hope for his future. But something happened. His God never left him alone, never stopped working something eternal in his life. He started using God’s gifts instead of his own charms – he let God take care of his problems. He became a different person who loved others, forgave his brothers and looked out for the interest of his family and a whole nation first.

“Whatever direction the wind blows, it will blow us to the Lord. His hand will direct us safely to the heavenly shore to find the weight of eternal glory. As we look back to our pains and suffering, we shall see that suffering is not worthy to be compared to our first night’s welcome home in heaven. If we could smell of heaven and our country above, our crosses would not bite us. Lay all your loads by faith on Christ, ease yourself, and let Him bear all. He can, He does, and He will bear you.” – Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)

Seems like the Joseph who went in to prison stayed behind and a new man emerged, ready to change the world because he had surrendered something his father had built but God wanted to transform.

What a turnaround.

It took time.

It meant being willing to become someone new.

Who You Thought You Were

lj-street-photo-05

I was watching a talk by writer David Brooks a few weeks ago. He said something that seemed very important to me.

“As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.” 

Tillich was a Lutheran theologian from Germany (1886-1965). He spent his academic career here in the United States first at Union Theological Seminary and then at Harvard Divinity School. I hear these words from the past and I discover some meaning to the road I’m on for the past few years. A road I’m sharing with several others as well.

My response to suffering has been anything but pretty. I can’t believe what’s coming out of my mouth most of the time. I’m the guy who has old men at church calling me “sir” – surely at this stage I am supposed to have things figured out and be able to maturely handle defeats and disasters. But that’s not what’s been going on. Tillich hits the nail on my head. I’m never going to grow up if I’m not even sure of who I really am.

“I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and transfigure us.” ― Hermann Hesse

When we suffer we are able to look past the fable of who we think we are and present to others. We see another side of ourselves, the vulnerable and broken remains.

  • Suffering helps us to grow up because it reveals to us a truth hidden from our happy introspection
  • Suffering helps us to see what must be attended to in our lives, we see faults and frailties for the first time or that we thought we had outgrown
  • Suffering shows us more of the truth and less of the fiction that keeps us deluded about whether we are moving forward or not

This quote from Tillich continues to speak to me because it calls me to cast off more and more of the comforting veneer and become more genuine, more frail and less in control. I believe that transformation, healing and growth can happen only when we look at our true selves. No, I’m not who I thought I was.

That’s okay.

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed