Sunday, October 28, 2012

Doing Blessing Well

t’s not uncommon for someone at church to approach me wanting to know what resources the church offers regarding managing their finances. Every one of these inquiries, with the exception of one, has come from individuals who were in financial despair due to the loss of employment, poor financial decisions, or unexpected bills that exceeded their resources. But there was the one person who came to me and said, “Phil, I would like to talk to someone about my finances. I could use some guidance.” I asked him if he could elaborate on what he was struggling with and he gave this answer. He said, “Over the past year or so, my business has really begun to prosper. It appears our tough years are over and we are beginning to really do well financially.” I was puzzled. Why would he need counsel when things are going so well? He explained, “I want to do ‘rich’ well!  God has blessed us immensely and I don’t want to mess this up. I don’t want to be selfish and consumed with my new-found prosperity. I want to do ‘rich’ well.”

How refreshing! I was amazed with this man’s mature perspective regarding blessing. He realized some very important things about God’s blessing. First, he was grateful, acknowledging that his abundance came from the hand of God and not his own. Second, he recognized the human tendency we all have to allow the things God has blessed us with to, ironically, become a curse. He wanted to do blessing right.
I’ve had the privilege in recent months to be the deliverer of this man’s quest to do rich well. He’ll approach me with an unmarked envelope with a check, cash, or gift cards enclosed. He heard of or spotted a need in someone’s life and wants me to deliver his gift to that person anonymously. As he hands me the envelope, he most often says, “Now, if you see they need more, there’s more where this comes from.”

I think doing blessing well is tougher than it looks. I hear people who are in financial need say they’d rather be on the giving side than the receiving side. I understand that completely but I think most of us don’t understand how difficult it is to be rich and to be godly. Jesus mentioned that with his reference of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. It’s just as tough for a rich man to find his way into the Kingdom of God.

If you look at the Old Testament history of the nation of Israel, you see they too had a major problem with doing blessing well. There’s a chronic cycle in the OT of obedience, drift, rebellion, pain, and then a cry for help until God sends a rescuer to restore them to blessing. Why doesn’t blessing last? Why do we drift? Even more importantly, how do we stave off the drift to rebellion?

Because of their sin, the nation of Israel was exiled for 70 years. No home, no country, no identity. But, God in his mercy rescued them and gave them a chance to return home and rebuild. Ezra and Nehemiah were two godly leaders who led the return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem both physically and spiritually. As the walls of the city surrounding the Temple of God were completed, you can sense a new season of blessing coming to the people. It’s almost as if you can hear these leaders say, “Let’s do blessing right this time! Let’s set the foundation deep so we don’t drift.”  
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Nehemiah 8.1-3

The Israelites renewed their vows to God. They listened attentively and then reestablished their foundation and identity given them in the Book of Law.
We all tend to drift away from blessing because of our propensity toward rebellion and selfishness. Is it time to cry out to God for rescue? Is it time to renew your vows? Is it time to listen attentively to the Word of God? Is it time to do blessing well?


Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Bible Lost

I usually don’t watch a movie more than once. It usually needs to be really funny with quotable lines that get funnier each time you hear them for it to get another look. I’ll confess I love Tommy Boy and Dumb and Dumber for that very reason. I’ll also watch a movie again and again if it has a deep and compelling plot with twists and turns that need to be thought through and figured out. I’ve seen the Bourne trilogy several times and I still haven’t figured out all that’s going on in the movie Inception.

The most recent movie to capture my attention is the Denzel Washington flick, The Book of Eli. It’s one of the few movies that use the Bible in the central plot. But before you gather the kids around the TV for Christian movie night, be warned that The Book of Eli is very, very violent and filled with hard language. It’s rated R for a good reason. But the plot is riveting.

The setting is the second generation after a nuclear holocaust. Civilization is in horrible shape and the people in power are deeply corrupt. They keep control over the people by removing books from society. The younger generation can’t read and the older generation who can read has nothing to read. The main character is Eli who is called by God to carry the last known Bible left on the planet. Throughout the movie, you don’t know his destination but just know he has a place he needs to take it. The villains in the story want to capture the Bible not so they can learn truth from it, but so they can gain power from having it. The movie is about the survival of the Bible in the face of evil. Evil seems to prevail as his copy is violently taken from him.

At the end of the movie Eli, beaten and battered, arrives at his destination (beware… I’m about to tell you the end of the story). He arrives at Alcatraz where a group of people are building the world’s library. Their quest is to recover as many relics of literature they can and begin to reprint them. We learn at the end that Eli is blind and his copy of the Bible was written in Braille. Over many years of carrying the Bible, Eli has not only read the Bible but he’s memorized it. The stolen copy is worthless to the villains. Only what was embedded in Eli’s mind and heart lasted. Eli spends his remaining days quoting the Bible to a scribe who writes each word. Alcatraz has the only printing press and the Bible is set to print and reproduced again.
I can’t imagine the world without God’s written Word. I think I have 10 to 15 different copies in my home and office. My goodness, Ada Bible Church just distributed 9,000 copies of the New Testament in just a few short weeks. The Bible is everywhere in our society. But, that hasn’t always been the case and is not the case worldwide. The Bible’s existence has been threatened and assaulted throughout history, but it has always survived the test of time and persecution. The Book of Eli really isn’t too farfetched in terms of history.

Centuries before the Bible was completed, the Law of God had almost been lost forever. The nation of Israel had divided into two kingdoms because of their rebellion against God. King after king rose into power, each more evil than the last. The nation and its people had drifted far from God. The One True God of Israel had been replaced by idols that led the people into vanity and immorality. It took a new king, an eight-year-old king, to lead the people back to God. Somehow, he learned the ways of his godly ancestor David and how he obeyed God. Josiah, this young king, set out on a mission to trash all the false gods and to restore the hearts of the people to the God of Israel. As he does this, a relic is found. It’s the written Book of the Law. It had been lost. No one had read it in years. Listen to what Josiah does with this incredible find.

He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by his pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in this book. Then he had everyone in Jerusalem and Benjamin pledge themselves to it; the people of Jerusalem did this in accordance with the covenant of God, the God of their ancestors. 2 Chronicles 34.30-32

The Word of God had gone from being virtually extinct to being the spiritual guide of God’s chosen nation again. It was rescued and revived. It had life and power to give the nation hope again.

Stories like these cause me to hold my Bible more tightly. Sometimes I forget how valuable these words truly are. They are God’s written words to us. He has preserved them over thousands of years. Maybe we need to treat our copy of the Scriptures like Eli did in the movie—as if it was the last copy on the face of the planet. How would we read the New Testament differently this week if we held it as a beautiful relic that has immeasurable value to our world and to our lives? Read it this week as if it’s your only opportunity to hear from God. Cherish the time and cherish the words that have survived the assault of evil for several millennium.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Best Meal

It was one of those things that I’ve put in the “it seemed like a good idea at the time” category. It was one of those “guy adventure” ideas that a friend dreamed up. Several years ago, I was asked to go on a hunting trip on North Manitou Island in northern Michigan. It was sold as a challenge of my manhood, an adventure of hunting, camping, hiking, living on little, going in the woods…  all that cool “man stuff.” I signed on with three other guys all wanting to test their testosterone levels in the wilderness.
This trip had unique challenges that needed some planning. First, you were only allowed to bring what you could carry on your back. This forced us to make critical decisions about what was really needed and what should be left at home. Hunting gear, by nature, is bulky and heavy, so we had to plan our food and clothing to be as minimal as possible. We packed high protein prepackaged hiking meals that required a little water and some heat to be ready. Our trip was to be four days and four nights and we planned only enough food to get to that final day. Secondly, we were to be dropped off by a boat on Wednesday and picked up on Sunday. Only an emergency would bring that boat to the island any earlier. It was clear that the boat would only come on Sunday if weather permitted. Third, the deer population on the island had been greatly diminished in recent years. Hunting would be difficult.
Our trip began on a beautiful late-October day. The trip to the island was smooth and our initial hike to the first campsite went fairly easily. We set up camp and began to discuss how we’d approach the next few days on the island. However, throughout the afternoon, we noticed the wind picking up. It was gentle but constant. We had brought tarps and ropes to make a covering for our little campsite just in case it rained. The breeze made this project a challenge; but with the tarps in place, we felt good about being able to endure the elements. Typically as evening approaches, winds diminish—but not in this case—that evening, the winds increased. And, for the next three days the winds increased even more while the temperatures fell. By Friday, the winds were constant at 40 mph and temperatures had dropped from the 50s into the 30s. This was truly an adventure, but one we had planned for.
Food became an issue for me during that time. I hated the food I brought, it all tasted like cardboard. The meals were too small and tasted terrible. Even worse, by Saturday evening, I had run out. With the wind and the weather as they were, we started to doubt if our Sunday departure was going to happen as waves climbed to 8-10 feet. We knew that no help was coming until the weather broke. I was hungry. I was sick of camp food. I wanted to go home, get warm and get some good food in me. I climbed into my sleeping bag on Saturday night not expecting the boat to arrive on Sunday. I’d be in survival mode until the weather changed.
To my surprise, Sunday was the most beautiful day of the week. Skies were clear and the wind had stopped. We packed our gear up and headed to the dock. The sight of the boat on the horizon was so welcomed. And as the boat pulled off the island, I started to plan my first meal. I was so hungry for good food that would fill my stomach. I was determined to stop at the first fast-food restaurant I saw on the drive home. That Big Mac was some of the best tasting food I’ve ever enjoyed. I ate it slowly, savoring every greasy morsel.
The Bible is filled with imagery about eating. I love that! Food is something I can really relate to. I need it, want it and really enjoy it—too much at times. So, when illustrations of food come up, I take notice. This one is fun. What is going on with the meal given by God to the prophet Ezekiel?
And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.
Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.  Ezekiel 3.1-3
God is giving Ezekiel a huge task—an adventure that would stretch him—an adventure that may not go well. Ezekiel is to go to the nation of Israel which has lost their land and freedom because of many years of sin and disobedience to God. They are exiled. God instructs Ezekiel to tell the Israelites to turn from their sin and follow God again. But God doesn’t promise Ezekiel that they’ll listen and take heed of God’s message. This is a tough task: deliver a message to a group of people who may not want to hear what needs to be said. But before Ezekiel goes, God gives him a scroll to eat. Seems a little too high fiber for me. I would bet it tasted a lot like cardboard but to Ezekiel, it tasted sweet, like honey.
There’s some beautiful symbolism here that we can draw from. God uses his written Word to nourish his prophet before a big task. God’s Word is to be consumed, digested and turned into productive energy. And for those craving direction and guidance for a tough task, it tastes sweet. It’s to be savored and enjoyed.
What tough task has God given you? What unexpected adventure are you on? Maybe this week we need to eat our copies of The Books of the Bible. Well, not literally. But, can we read as if we are ingesting the nourishment of life from God. Savor it. Enjoy the honey in the words this week. Find the power and the energy to do what’s needed even if it’s tough.



Friday, October 5, 2012

The Winner of ArtPrize is...

I’m a big fan of ArtPrize. It’s been one of the greatest things to hit our little town of Grand Rapids. This year I love it even more. I actually have a piece of art displayed in the contest. It’s a photo display of black and white pictures I’ve captured on my trips to Haiti. It’s been a great experience for me and has led to some wonderful conversations with people about photography, Haiti, and art. I’ve never really considered myself an artist, so this is a very new conversation for me to be a part of.

Because I have something displayed in ArtPrize, I’ve been downtown much more than in previous years. I’ll go hang out at my display for an hour or so, talking to people who have questions or want to chat about Haiti. Then I’ll wander around downtown with my wife to see some of the 1,500 other pieces of art. I’m amazed by the diversity in style and resources used to create art. I’m also amazed when I read the artist statements that describe the process they went through in creating the piece.  Honestly, some of it makes sense to me, and even inspires me, but others seem like a giant stretch. I walk away confused or even disturbed. That’s what happens in an open competition of art. Some art I like. Some things I hate. Some things I just don’t get. But, some of the art absolutely stops me and stuns me— like the taxidermy moose and wolves display, the pencil drawings of the band and the elephants, and even the 20,000 lanterns that were launched into the GR sky.
Of all the cool things I’ve enjoyed about ArtPrize this year, the most stunning to me was a piece of art that wasn’t entered into the competition but showed up anyway. After walking through the Amway Grand one evening, we stepped outside with the intent to head across the river on the walking bridge. As soon as we stepped outside, we saw it. It was a stunning sunset. Oranges, reds, grays, and yellows streaked through the clouds on the horizon. As the sun set— moving in and out of the clouds—the artwork changed. The light would dim and brighten as the sun, clouds, and wind sketched the colorful sky. It was interesting to listen to the people on the street when they saw this incredible display hover over the ArtPrize venues. I heard one person say, “Wow, that must be God’s entry into ArtPrize.”  Two nights later, we experienced the same thing. God was again presenting his artwork to us at ArtPrize.
God, the artist! If art makes a statement, what was he saying? What did we need to hear? Here’s what I think I heard that night: “Hey, humankind! I created you to be creative and expressive. When you are, you’re like me! Nice job. But, let me remind you of what I can do that’s bigger and better than anything you can dream up.  I can do it every day if I want to with ease, distinction, and power. I do this to be seen and to be heard. I want to be known. Here I am!”
I’m not the first person to realize this, of course. Listen to David’s words in Psalm 19 as written by Eugene Peterson’s The Message.
God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.
God makes a huge dome
for the sun—a superdome!
The morning sun’s a new husband
leaping from his honeymoon bed,
The daybreaking sun an athlete
racing to the tape.
But God doesn’t stop his communication with a sunset. He has much more to say to us. He’s given his written Word for us to find guidance, truth, encouragement and more importantly, to find HIM.  David continues,
That’s how God’s Word vaults across the skies
from sunrise to sunset,
Melting ice, scorching deserts,
warming hearts to faith.
The revelation of God is whole
and pulls our lives together.
The signposts of God are clear
and point out the right road.
The life-maps of God are right,
showing the way to joy.
The directions of God are plain
and easy on the eyes.
God’s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold,
with a lifetime guarantee.
The decisions of God are accurate
down to the nth degree.
God’s Word is better than a diamond,
better than a diamond set between emeralds.
                                                                Psalm 19.6-10 The Message
As  you see the sun rise and set, as you feel the rain on your face, as you see new colors in the trees and… as you read his Word this week, know that God is revealing himself to you. Take it in. Learn and enjoy his creative presence in your life. He wants to be known.