Mountain God 5: God’s Quiet Whisper (1 Kings 19)

hearingc“Then Elijah was told, “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by.” A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper” (1 Kings 19).

 Here we sit around a warm fire some 11,000 feet above sea level.  The evening is quiet as the breeze has died down for our evening devotions.  God sits in with us for the conversation; for God loves this particular topic and is glad we have chosen this story tonight.  The topic is “Hearing from God” and the story is of Elijah.  

We live in a noise world that worships the five natural senses of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing.  The problem arises when we rely on these natural senses when approaching the supernatural.  The world is brimming with the presence of God and his invisible angels.  But this much is clear: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). 

So, as we sit around this fire and read this story of Elijah in dire need of hearing from God, we are reminded that God does not reveal himself in ways we might wish he would.  Faith exercises a sort of “sixth sense” that transcends the natural senses.  Oh, how we wish God would just show Himself plainly in a powerful wind, a mighty earthquake or a blazing fire. God has indeed resorted to burning bush appearances and fiery, mountain shaking theophanies.  

But Elijah discovers the all-too-true reality of God’s presence and voice.  God’s presence usually comes without pyrotechnics, great fanfare and visible signs.  He whispers to our hearts through inaudible words of assurance.  We sense his quiet presence through inexplicable inner nudges.  We “hear” God’s voice much as we feel strong convictions in our soul and internalize truths that set our hearts on fire and move us to action.  

Tonight we lift our eyes to the stars and ask God to speak to us in that quiet, inaudible whisper.  We need no outward sign tonight.  The stars speak plainly enough to his unsurpassed majesty.  The gentle breeze on our skin is enough to feel his grace.  The rain drops pattering on the tent as we fall asleep remind us that he is a God who makes things grow and flower.  

Lord, quiet our hearts and silence the noise of our anxious thoughts so we can hear your quiet whisper tonight.

It’s blowing everywhere, covering everything!

2813982912_8094732387_oIt’s blowing everywhere, covering everything.  Cottonwood trees are spreading their seed indiscriminately by way of the warm spring breeze.

Those of us too absorbed in our ordinary affairs will simply ignore nature’s process of procreation as pollen storms blow in and cotton-like snow accumulates on our lawns, car windshields, patio furniture and everything else.  Until, that is, that pesky cotton begins landing on top your hamburgers on the grill, or you snort it up your nose on your morning jog. That’s how it caught my attention this spring.

Still, instead of literally cursing the wind, my mind began to wander to an extraordinary biblical truth or, as I call them, a “sacred analogy” hidden in this otherwise ordinary spring occurrence. Continue reading

Mountain God 4: Faith & Obedience (Genesis 22)

abrahamI’m reposting this series from 2009 when I was a youth pastor leading a trip to Colorado. Enjoy! -JB

After all this, God tested Abraham. God said, “Abraham!” “Yes?” answered Abraham. “I’m listening.” 2 He said, “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you.” Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and his son Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place God had directed him… The angel of God spoke from Heaven a second time to Abraham: “I swear—God’s sure word!—because you have gone through with this, and have not refused to give me your son, your dear, dear son, I’ll bless you—oh, how I’ll bless you! And I’ll make sure that your children flourish—like stars in the sky! like sand on the beaches! And your descendants will defeat their enemies. All nations on Earth will find themselves blessed through your descendants because you obeyed” (Gen 22:1-5, 15-18). 

 As you read this post we are most likely resting against a hard rock, or cooling off in s nearby stream, perhaps telling stories around a campfire.  As I momentarily slip away from the group to gather some wood for the fire I’m reminded of our ancient father Abraham who obediently woke up early that fateful morning to chop wood and head off to his own mountain of testing to build a most unthinkable fire — a sacrificial fire for his precious son Isaac.

Why did Abraham go through with it? Continue reading

Mountain God 3: A Holy God (Exodus 19)

Moses on Mt. Sinai

I’m reposting this series from 2009 when I was a youth pastor leading a trip to Colorado. Enjoy! -JB

God said to Moses, “Go to the people. For the next two days get these people ready (i.e., “consecrate them”) to meet the Holy God. Have them scrub their clothes so that on the third day they’ll be fully prepared, because on the third day God will come down on Mount Sinai and make his presence known to all the people. Post boundaries for the people all around, telling them, ‘Warning! Don’t climb the mountain. Don’t even touch its edge. Whoever touches the mountain dies—a certain death. And no one is to touch that person, he’s to be stoned. That’s right—stoned. Or shot with arrows, shot to death. Animal or man, whichever—put to death.’ “A long blast from the horn will signal that it’s safe to climb the mountain.” Moses went down the mountain to the people and prepared them for the holy meeting. On the third day at daybreak, there were loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp shuddered in fear. Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God” (Exodus 19 The Message). 

Oh, how we need a reminder of the unapproachable, untouchable, absolutely unequalled holiness of the Living God!  All Christians, pastors and preachers  of every persuasion (myself included) tend toward one of two extremes when it comes to our perceptions of the character of God.

Some emphasize the sovereign, severe, holiness of God.  My Reformed friends constantly remind me of these characteristics of God.  They have not lost track of passages like this great and awesome theophany — the God whose presence is accompanied by “loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast.”  When was the last sermon you heard that concluded with a warning to be careful or you may “be shot with arrows, shot to death”?

Yet, many of us today slide over to the other side of the spectrum and emphasize strictly the love, compassion and approachability of God most clearly displayed in the life and character of Jesus.  We have a warm and fuzzy, “Jesus is my homeboy” or best friend kind of relationship with God.  This picture of God seems incompatible with severe, holy God of the Sinai encounter.

Neither of these views are wrong (though both can go too far in their direction and distort God’s holiness or God’s love) but need to be in proper balance. Continue reading

Mountain God 2: A Holy People (Exodus 19)

Israel encamped at Mt. Sinai
 

 

 

 

I’m reposting this series from 2009 when I was a youth pastor leading a trip to Colorado. Enjoy! -JB

Three months after leaving Egypt the Israelites entered the Wilderness of Sinai. They followed the route from Rephidim, arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai, and set up camp. Israel camped there facing the mountain. As Moses went up to meet God, God called down to him from the mountain: “Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. IF you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:1-6).

I am on a bus full of energetic teenagers, many of whom have never been in the real mountains.  We are headed toward Buena Vista, Colorado, and about to get thrust into nature to a degree I have never been.  Proof?  One of the first skills our trained guides will teach us is which leaves work best for wiping after going the bathroom behind the nearest bush.  Yes, we will be obeying the “Leave No Trace” policy.

My strong desire and expectation is that the Holy Spirit will NOT be following a leave no trace policy when it comes to making an impact on these teens’ lives.  The first Mountain Encounter we will be studying definitely describes a moment where God definitely left a mark and made a strong impression on Moses and the special chosen people who we know as the Israelites.  Just as in the passage above, God led the people into the wilderness in order to make Himself known to them and give them a new identity and special calling, we too are about to make camp “facing the mountain.”   Continue reading

Mountain God 1: Introduction

mountaingod

I’m reposting this series from back in 2009 when I was a youth pastor. Enjoy! -JB

“The mountain is no ordinary place.  It is a dangerous environment of holiness, the place where the ordinariness of human, earthly life has contact with the holy that destabilizes and consequently transforms.  We have trivialized “mountaintop experiences” as though they are romantic opportunities for religious self-indulgence. This account [at Sinai], against any such domestication, portrays the mountain of holiness as a dangerous meeting place that will leave nothing unchanged” (Walter Brueggemann).  

I leave today to lead a group of senior high students into the backcountry mountain wilderness of Colorado the week of July 26-August 2.  Adventure Trips such as this are designed to get students away from the ordinary in order to experience the extraordinary.  Our team will be led by experienced professional trail guides form Noah’s Ark, a Christian wilderness outfitter located near Buena Vista, Colorado,that leads groups like ours year-round.

Our group will spend the week engaged in fun mountain activities which include rock climbing, whitewater rafting, backpacking and wilderness camping.  I am certain the trip will be filled with fun adventures, new and stronger relationships, many laughs, plenty of physical challenges and much more.

My hopes for this trip, however, are focused on the spiritual.   Continue reading

laundry

Dirty Laundry 7: Dress Accordingly

No one likes being underdressed.  A beautiful sunset off the coastline is hard to enjoy when you are shivering in a T-shirt and shorts.  It’s hard to enjoy three feet of fresh powder on the slopes of Aspen when your fingers and toes are numb from the bitter cold.  And a rainy camping trip is almost unbearable if you left your rain gear at home.

Being underdressed is not limited to the weather alone.  Consider the gaping stares and awkward glances you would get if you showed up for the Winter Formal in blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.  No one likes showing up at a wedding with a black suit and white tennis shoes, having left your dress shoes back home.  And one of the cruelest pranks ever devised is throwing a formal cocktail party and telling one unlucky “friend” it is a toga or cartoon costume party!  Can you imagine being that poor fellow when you walk into a room of black dresses and ties looking like Scooby Doo?

The Bible has some valuable advice for dressing appropriately for both the occasion and the conditions.  We would be wise to follow these dress tips if we are to avoid uncomfortable scenarios similar to those above. Continue reading

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Recovering Obedience at the Heart of Discipleship

Radical, unquestioning obedience to God is not in vogue in the church today.  We’ve moved beyond that bossy God of the Old Testament, preferring the more gentle, easy-going Jesus who fits conveniently in our own hearts.  We prefer t-shirts that say “Jesus is my homeboy” over ones that say “Jesus is my master.”

Muslims approach God in fear and submission, while we Christians perhaps flaunt the fact that we “can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus” (Heb 10:19).  Perhaps, we should do the latter without losing a healthy dose of the former?  Instead of reorienting our lives to serve God’s interests, we prefer a God who makes it his business to serve our needs.  Just listen to the prayer requests at the next Bible Study or church service.  “Lord, heal Sue; give Jim a new job; protect our families.”

I believe there are reasons we skirt around the issue of “faithful obedience” in our culture.  Many of us have tasted the poison of the other extreme — legalism.  We fear doing things out of a sense of obligation or tradition when our hearts are not into it.  Others are reacting to the caricature of God as the drill sergeant in the sky barking commands with an angry tone.  We have left Law and discovered Grace in Jesus.

But I think at the core of this aversion to obedience in the church is a deep-seated enslavement to self, to one’s own desires, to our feelings.  It’s the perennial human weakness.  We want to call the shots, protect our life, and cling to the controls.  We resist all outside forces that would stake a claim on us — including God.

Well, while we need to guard ourselves against legalism, always let Jesus shape our image of God, and live in the grace we have in Christ, we cannot run away from the central truth that our lives are not our own.  When God calls us to himself, he calls us away from our own selves.

We buy Life Application Study Bibles that help us apply the Scripture to our lives, rather than asking God to somehow make our lives relevant to the Story of the Bible.  “How does this passage apply to my life” is one of the most self-centered questions we can possible ask of the Scriptures.  It assumes that the truth and purposes contained in God’s Word somehow revolve around us — with “me” at the center.  This me-centered approach to reading Scripture subverts a core truth the Scriptures are trying to teach us: Die to yourself, and give yourselves to some purpose beyond yourself.  Its almost as if the entire New Testament screams out, “Stop trying to apply this to your life, and instead start applying yourself to the purposes of God.”  I wish there was chapter and verse that simply said, “Get over yourself.” (Though I think many verses just about get there, e.g., Gal 2:20.)

When I read through the Bible and observe the lives of the great heroes of the faith, all characterized by radical obedience to God.  After their encounter with the living God, they all realized that they were no longer calling the shots or directing the future path of their lives.  If they once thought they were in charge, “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul”, that life was now over.

Continue reading

Christianity 1.0: “Installing” the Faith

A repost from my youth pastor days. Enjoy! -JB

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

-Jesus

A recent Barna survey revealed some less than optimistic stats on the percentage of Americans who hold to a “biblical worldview” – that is, those who go beyond merely checking the Christian box on a poll or attending church on occasion.  Barna defines a biblical worldview as

“believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.”

Here are some of the findings: Continue reading

Gospeling in Corinth 4: God-Taught

God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. . . . The Spirit, not content to flit around on the surface, dives into the depths of God, and brings out what God planned all along. Who ever knows what you’re thinking and planning except you yourself? The same with God—except that he not only knows what he’s thinking, but he lets us in on it. God offers a full report on the gifts of life and salvation that he is giving us. We don’t have to rely on the world’s guesses and opinions. We didn’t learn this by reading books or going to school; we learned it from God, who taught us person-to-person through Jesus, and we’re passing it on to you in the same firsthand, personal way.

The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can’t receive the gifts of God’s Spirit. There’s no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit—God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion. Spiritually alive, we have access to everything God’s Spirit is doing, and can’t be judged by unspiritual critics. Isaiah’s question, “Is there anyone around who knows God’s Spirit, anyone who knows what he is doing?” has been answered: Christ knows, and we have Christ’s Spirit” (1 Cor 2:6-16).

So far in our reflections on Paul’s ministry in Corinth we have discovered that the message corresponds to God-logic, not human wisdom, and the two are often in opposition to one another.  In other words, if you’re drinking in deeply of the latest, greatest in human pop-wisdom — often the latest theories of the university curriculum — you may be moving further than away from the “foolishness of God” which is far superior. Second, the people of God, believers who respond to Paul’s gospeling, are God-chosen and God-empowered to active faith in the gospel and a life of following Jesus.

Today’s passage goes a step further in showing that believers are largely at the mercy of God’s Spirit awakening to understand the deeper spiritual realities of faith.  The classic term for the Spirit’s work of making spiritual things understandable to largely “unspiritual” people — those Paul might elsewhere call “infants” in the faith — is ILLUMINATION.  I will just call it the reality of becoming “God-taught” believers. Continue reading

Gospeling in Corinth 3: God-Empowered

1-2You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God’s master stroke, I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.

3-5I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. But the Message came through anyway. God’s Spirit and God’s power did it, which made it clear that your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not to some fancy mental or emotional footwork by me or anyone else. (1 Cor 2:1-5)

The Bible is filled with freaked out, tongue-tied messengers commissioned with bringing God’s Word into risky situations.  Moses stammers when he speaks but is told to go to pharaoh. Jeremiah thinks he’s too young and inexperienced but that doesn’t get him off the hook. Paul had a reputation for being impressive in writing but awkward in person. (I can relate!)

Those of us pastors and speakers who have the privilege to share God’s Message with others regularly can gain reassurance from passages like this that remind us that even the great apostle had many moments of uncertainty and doubt. Do you find it encouraging to know that even Paul “felt totally inadequate” and “scared to death” at times?  I do.

Do you speak, preach or teach regularly to groups?  Do you go through deep valleys of uncontrollable self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in ministry?  This can be a weight that sinks your ministry under the waters of despair, or it can be the thing that drives you to become more dependent on God’s power in your ministry. Paul’s greatest legacy was his utter dependence on God to be his “strength in weakness.”  He believed with every bone in his body that the effectiveness of his ministry — his preaching of the Message — depended on God’s power.

But sharing the message of the gospel is not a task reserved for pastors and preachers.  We are all called to “give a reason for the hope that lies within us” and share this with others “with gentleness and respect.”  So, what pointers can we glean from Paul above as we strive to become God-empowered messengers of the Kingdom?

  • Don’t try to impress your hearers (v. 1). You’re not an entertainer, you’re a messenger entrusted with a life-changing Word to share.
  • Keep it simple (v. 2). Dressing up the truth to make it more appealing, funny or cute can lead people to grab onto the wrong thing. Keep it simple.
  • Keep Jesus at the center (v. 2). Make sure everything comes back to Jesus insofar as possible: “First Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did.”
  • Be real, be vulnerable (v. 3). Paul is not afraid to tell his flock of his personal doubts, fears and struggles. We shouldn’t either. Sincerity earns you credibility with your audience.
  • Depend on God (vv. 4-5). Always. Your message is only effective if the Holy Spirit works through it. “Let go and let God.”

This is hitting home for me right now as I labor to be a faithful and effective messenger of God’s Word. I thank God for choosing people like Paul, and inspiring his writings like this and placing them in the holy Scriptures to encourage ordinary people like me who are also “unsure of how to go about this, and feel totally inadequate.”

It’s a good thing it’s not really about us.  The ministry of the gospel is God-empowered ministry.

Dirty Laundry 6: Jesus en Vogue

Screen shot 2014-05-31 at 11.20.03 PMFashion trends come and go like the ocean tide, but one fad that is here to stay is the style of being in style.  And the drive toward conformity begins at a surprisingly early age.

I still remember my first brush with the “fashion police” from way back in grade school.  The popular brand name as a second-grader was Polo/Ralph Lauren.  You’re probably familiar with the short sleeve collared Polo shirts with the little embroidered polo player and horse on the breast pocket.  Well, my mother wasn’t about to shop at Marshall Fields for her seven year-old.  Garage sales and hand-me-downs would do just fine for us.

But one day I inherited a hand-me-down “Polo” shirt of my own from came a cousin.  At some point during the day, one of the “popular kids” (yes, these cliques were being formed already in the second-grade) pointed out in front of all my peers that I was wearing an imitation Polo shirt.  Instead of a polo horse and player, I had only a purple unicorn in its place!  I immediately realized I was just a Ralph Lauren want-to-be, committing fashion fraud.  I was wearing the right style, but with the wrong name attached.

We find an opposite trend with spirituality these days.  When we survey the selection of religious fashions on sale in the spiritual marketplace, we find that Jesus is back in vogue.  But exactly which Jesus is more difficult to discern.  Confusingly, Jesus’ name is being stitched on all different styles of faith, coming in all shapes and sizes.  Continue reading

Reports from the intersection of faith & everyday life.

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