Comments from Colossians (1:28-29)

So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me. (Colossians 1:28-29; New Living Translation)

Some folk say, “I pray like everything depends on God and work like everything depends on me.” It makes me smile but it also reflects a biblical tension.

TensionOn the one hand, many Christians do little to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). They live so passively or apathetically that faith seems of little or no consequence. If anything is going to happen, God will have to find a supernatural way to pull it off on His own. No help from these people. Their faith is personal and private. They have families, careers, and hobbies to attend to. They might slip into a Christmas or Easter service but not much beyond that.

On the other hand, other believers just work their hearts out. They volunteer for everything in the church and attend every major event. They always raise their hands when things need to be done. They work tirelessly, it seems; Christian Energizer bunnies who “work hard in the Lord” (Romans 16:12).

But there IS a tension, and should be.

The Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Colosse, “That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.” Hang on a minute! Paul is working and struggling hard, but at the same time he depends on Christ’s mighty power that works within him? Whose strength is Paul really using or relying on?

Both.

The journey of faith is neither apathetic passivity not frenetic activity. It’s partnership. Anything less than our best effort is unworthy of our calling. But self-reliance dishonors the Presence and power of Christ..

Some days I put my shoulder to the wheel FOR Him, and while the results may impress others, the effort usually drains me or draws attention to me. However, when I put my shoulder to the wheel WITH Him, I discover that indeed “His yoke is easy and His burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

When the journey of faith feels exhausting or futile, when we feel disillusioned or depleted it may be that we’re struggling hard in our own power. Similarly, when we assume that everything depends on Christ, with little discipline or devotion on our part, we may feel distant, disconnected, and dissatisfied.

Can we struggle hard for the Cause of Christ while also depending on (and appropriating) His mighty power? We must. But His power flows from His Presence. Only as we abide in Him will we bear much fruit.

May God grip us, guide us, and go before us today as we surrender “all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength” (Mark 12:30) to Him.

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Las Vegas and the next News Cycle

Yesterday we woke to the news of the latest (and worst) mass shooting in U.S. history: 59 dead; 527 injured.

Las Vegas ShootingThe scope of this horrifying event defies imagination. How can we begin to measure the grief, the shattered lives, the devastated families, and the personal trauma?

Sarah Sanders (on behalf of the Trump administration) and others (in the mainstream media) have immediately insisted that we not talk about gun control. “Now’s not the time.” After all, as the deep-pocketed NRA keeps insisting, “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” That mantra has become entirely predictable after each terrifying and destructive incident. So, we’ll leave guns alone and target poor hotel security or inadequately thick hotel windows or some other senseless distraction.

If past history (e.g. Sandy Hook, Orlando) serves as any guide for this current event, we know how this will play out. The voyeuristic fascination with images and amateur videos will die down in another day or two. We’ll have watched enough and heard enough. Funerals will get organized, photos and bios of the victims will be posted online … and we’ll all get back to “normal” with the next major news cycle.

It’s a very new and disturbing “normal.”

How should we as Christians respond? It has become an impossible conversation, and the word “should” will get debated at every turn. Who am I to suggest there is a specific, necessary, or right ethical response?

Our communities can no longer have this conversation because we have come to believe that we must all just “follow our conscience” on this. We’re told that “it’s complicated, because we need to (above all) preserve the rights of the individual to arm themselves heavily, to travel freely, to live their lives privately (and secretly), to decide for themselves what is right, and to say what they like.”

Individual rights have become sacrosanct. And when individualism trumps social obligation, the conversation collapses.

Ethics (“what is good and right”) assumes a corporate conscience. When we diminish or displace such a conscience, we have no grounds for social change. Opinions may flourish, but nothing becomes binding.

The frequency of mass shootings is accelerating, and the solution is not President Trump or Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s proposal to put more concealed weapons in the pockets of young college students or the American public at large. More guns? Better concealed? Seriously?

In 1996, Australia reeled one Sunday afternoon when a heavily-armed young man slaughtered 35 people and wounded 23 others at a tourist spot in Tasmania. In the six months that followed, the Federal government enacted strict gun control laws which have remained in place. Since then, Australia has not experienced another indiscriminate mass shooting.

How shall we respond to Las Vegas? Perhaps the following couple of steps would make for a meaningful (and preliminary) Christian response.

Pray. Pray for the victims. And let’s pray for each other, that God may give us clarity and courage for a way forward. It’ll take plenty of both!

Talk. Talk with your kids and grandkids about violence in our culture; not just the facts and news stories of violence, but the dangerous way that we honor it and have become entertained by it.

Act. Act as you have opportunity and conviction. As Edmund Burke famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Fifty-nine families — and so  many more — will not be healed or helped by the coming of the next news cycle.

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Comments from Colossians (3:1-2)

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. (Colossians 3:1-2; New Living Translation)

In The Joyful Christian, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.

Looking upIt’s so easy to be distracted by the worries and cares of this age. Everywhere we turn we have cause for concern. How will we pay for this or that? What if I don’t recover my health? Why do our kids seem so bent on bad choices? Will the church survive this conflict? What if I lose my job? And these questions don’t begin to address global issues of poverty, terrorism, immigration, refugees, cyber-attacks, identity theft, nuclear threats, natural disasters, and so much more.

The more we set our minds on the things of earth, the more discouraged we become. And “ethical overload” kicks in, hardening our hearts to injustice and suffering because we simply can’t cope with the media avalanche.

But as Christians, by God’s grace, we have hope. It’s not hope for quick fixes or immediate relief, but hope for eternity. We fix our eyes on heaven, and get earth “thrown in.”

It matters where we set our sights.

The ancient nation of Israel learned this quite literally. In Numbers 21, as the nation headed towards the Promised Land after leaving Egypt, they started to grow impatient and they complained against both God and Moses. They were sick of manna and tired of the journey. They let their sights drop and started grumbling.

So God sent venomous snakes among the people. If the people wanted to look down (at their tough times rather than His true character) then He’d give them something to look down at! And the snakes bit the people and many died.

Then, in a unique occurrence, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” (Numbers 21:8-9)

If they would only look up, things would be better.

Jesus piggy-backed on this story when he told His disciples, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” (John 3:14)

It’s pretty hard to look up and down at the same time. Our hope and redemption lie not in our circumstances but in His promises; not in politics but in His Presence; not in our strength but in His sovereignty.

We set our sights on eternity not to escape reality but to keep reality in perspective. How are you doing today? We could probably all use the adjustment that Paul proposes to the Colossians.

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Comments from Colossians (2:20-23)

“You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.” (Colossians 2:20-23; New Living Translation)

Dying with ChristI recently heard a renowned law professor say, “The purpose of the law is to keep us from doing what we want to do. But it has no power to change our desires.” We may want to drive 80 miles per hour down the freeway, but the law keeps (some of) us in check. It doesn’t remove the desire within us, but it does put a brake (sometimes) on our actions.

The Apostle Paul, a renowned law professor in his own day, had concluded much the same thing. As helpful as the rules seem to be, “they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.”

So, the pathway to freedom — freedom from guilt and shame; freedom from condemnation; freedom from destructive addiction — is not in harder work and greater effort. The road to liberty is not paved by discipline and determination. We don’t flourish by “strong devotion, pious self-denial, or severe bodily discipline.” Such things may change our behavior for a moment but do little to conquer the evil desires within us.

Our human nature wages guerrilla warfare against us. When under threat by new habits and external changes, it goes deeper underground; ever-present, much-alive, lurking and looking for a moment of weakness.

Our fallen nature is opportunistic. It emerges from hiding when we are distracted, weary, stressed, alone, or complacent. And it attacks with a vengeance. Then it thrusts guilt and shame upon us, and holds us to ransom. It demands secrecy from us, and these dark corners of our lives spread and overtake entire rooms within our hearts.

The Apostle Paul knew the real and debilitating power of sin. He also knew the greater and liberating power of dying with Christ! “We have died with Christ in baptism” he reminded the Colossians (2:12). But he also declared elsewhere, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31).

The journey of discipleship is marked by a constant rhythm; a rhythm of death…and life; dying…and rising; putting off…putting on. Rule-keeping has its place. But freedom, cleansing, redemption, renewal, and hope begins elsewhere.

Don’t fear self-abandonment, self-denial, or putting to death your own ambition, rights, dreams, expectations, and control. It will not leave you more vulnerable. On the contrary, paradoxically, it makes resurrection into the Light possible!

Oh glorious moment when we can declare, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me!” (Galatians 2:20)

What might this look like for you today?

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Guaranteed Success

Entire industries (books, seminars, conferences, podcasts, and consulting) make untold millions of dollars by promising success. CEO’s, presidents, and parents alike open their wallets (or hand over their credit cards) to get tips that will put them on the success super-highway.

SuccessNever mind about the different ways to succeed (money, relationships, power, or fame), we are simply success-hungry as a culture. Perhaps it’s because of our aversion to failure. Nobody remembers who came in second. Losers get nothing. Winners get it all. Bigger is better; biggest is best.

“After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua…’Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips, meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.‘” (Joshua 1:1, 7-8)

Moses had miracles (a burning bush that didn’t burn, a staff that would turn into a serpent, a rod that would part the Red Sea). Joshua got…Scripture.

Joshua might have hoped for something more spectacular; some super-hero powers would have been handy going into Canaan to face fortified cities and hostile people. He got…the first five books of the Bible.

Have we understated and under-estimated the power of God’s Word? Have we become so familiar with it, and perhaps felt so untouched by it (at times), that we have lost our confidence in it? Perhaps we’ve simply been distracted from it by the seductive suggestions of our culture.

As Joshua prepared for the call of his life, to lead a nation into a new land, his success depended on one thing…obey the Word, meditate on it day and night, and be careful to do everything written in it; turning neither to the right nor the left.

Joshua didn’t have to explain the Word or understand the purposes and reasons behind the Word. He was told to simply soak in it, and do it.

“Then you will be prosperous and successful.”

Most of us place highest value on those things that cost us most. We’ll certainly listen to a well-paid consultant at $10,000 per month. Perhaps that’s why God’s Word has gathered dust on our bookshelves. “There’s an app for that.” No cost. Free. And so it remains untouched.

But the God of eternity, the One who created and sustains all things, He who is sovereign over all life and death, shows us the way to true, all-encompassing success. Perhaps today (even the next few minutes) would be a good time to get back on the path to true success.

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Comments from Colossians (2:16-19)

Don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it. (Colossians 2:16-19; New Living Translation)

Rule-keepers like rules. Life seems so much easier when everyone does what they should. Eat this, not that. Drink this, not that. Do this, on this day; and that, on that day. It makes everything orderly and predictable. It provides the illusion of control. And for a while, the rules seem to minimize chaos and create calm. That is, until these same rules start to oppress us and suck our souls dry.

RulesSlowly, the rules produce new kinds of guilt and shame. They highlight our inadequacy, and become tyrannical.

The best rule-keepers — those among us with the greatest and most impressive self-discipline, who keep rules that most of us struggle with, or keep more rules than most of us knew existed — these people stand head and shoulders above the rest of us. They have much to be proud of.

But Christianity starts not with rule-keeping but with connection to Christ. And there’s a profound difference.

Rule-keeping will impress our communities, but will not nourish our souls. Ultimately, life and vitality is not found in “the Law” but in Jesus. As we abide in Him we experience liberation from Satan, sin, and self. This freedom is not attained by self-effort. This empowerment is not gained from self-sufficiency. Regeneration is not found in ethics. It all comes solely and purely from spiritual connection; connection to the Vine; connection to the Head; connection to Jesus.

Order is not the goal of life. Redemption is what matters. And much as we’d like to lay down the law for others (as we may do even for ourselves), we will discover that the pavers on this pathway are far less stable than we imagine.

Paul urges the Colossian believers, and us, to resist enslavement to traditions, personal preferences, and opinions. Special food, special days, even spiritual disciplines have value only when they connect us to Christ.

We worry what others will say or think about us. We get nervous about not belonging. We toe the line to fit in. But if, in the midst of this pressure and conformity we lose intimacy with Jesus, we lose what matters most.

What misguided burdens have we laid on ourselves (or others) recently? How might we restore the greatest connection?

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Comments from Colossians (2:13-15)

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (Colossians 2:13-15; New Living Translation)

Helms DeepIn The Lord of the Rings, the climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep involves peasants and simple soldiers facing countless hordes of Orcs and others bred purely for war. It’s a terrifying scene as ordinary folk get driven deeper into the fortress and mountain. They face almost certain destruction. Then with the breaking of dawn, Gandalf the Great (riding a white stallion) comes over the horizon with a thousand warriors and routes the violent armies of the evil Saruman.

The dramatic scene is more than powerful fictional writing. It captures the plight of the human experience. There comes a time in each of our lives when we feel overwhelmed by everything pitted against us. With nothing but the natural eye, all we see are the mistakes of our past, the conflicts of the present, the fears of the future, and certain destruction. At some point, most of us find ourselves in the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Yet, through Christ and the cross, “joy comes in the morning.” When the darkness seems about to prevail, there is “the Light which, coming into the world, enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). Jesus is that Light. And the pre-dawn darkness, the pre-dawn threats, and the pre-dawn fears melt away in His Presence.

As Paul puts it to the Colossians, the charges against us are cancelled; the forces against us are defeated!

We were as good as dead because of our sins and the power of darkness that kept us in bondage. But God, through Christ, has delivered us. He has forgiven us. The debt is paid. The charges are dismissed. The powers are vanquished. Fear and shame have lost their hold.

It’s easy to feel small, insignificant, and powerless. Easy to feel discouraged and overwhelmed by our failures and our apparent inability to rise above “the flesh.” But God, through Christ, changes everything. We are not alone.

When all looks most bleak and most lost, lift your eyes to the horizon. See not what stands directly before you, but Him who is coming for you. The victory has already been won. Claim it. Lean into it. Live assured of it today.

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Comments from Colossians (2:11-12)

When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12; New Living Translation)

Our language about Christian baptism has undergone subtle but significant changes since the first century.

BaptismIt’s fairly common to hear folk discuss baptism and describe it as simply “an outward affirmation of an inward change.” This view dates back centuries, though not as far as the New Testament itself. In this view, baptism serves as a testimony or witness to a transforming spiritual experience that happened elsewhere and earlier.

It’s equally common to hear other folk make a small change to the key preposition in Colossians 2 (and Romans 6). To be baptized is to be “buried like Christ, and raised like Christ.”

But the Apostle Paul never uses language that makes baptism either a symbol or an analogy. For him, something quite real–and quite powerful–takes place.

Baptism, for Paul, does not symbolize new life, it instigates it. In Colossians 2, he links it directly with coming to Christ and having the old sinful nature cut away. In baptism, we aren’t just doing what Jesus did; being like Him. We are actually (mystically and mysteriously) connected with Him in this rich Christian sacrament. As Paul writes to the Colossians: “We have been buried with Him (and raised with Him) in baptism….” He espouses the same views, very clearly, in Romans 6:3-4.

Not everybody will agree with Paul, for sure. Our personal histories, religious traditions, and education have surely driven us to a variety of positions on this controversial topic. But as we study the New Testament–beyond just the words of the Apostle Paul–what other event or experience is so explicitly linked with the death of our old self and our resurrection to new life?

I understand that Christian baptism is a lightning rod in the Christian world. It’s no longer simple. Infant or adult believer? Immersion, pouring, or sprinkling? Symbol or sacrament? In the name of Jesus or the trinity? Performed by priests and pastors alone, or also by laity? And so it continues.

Colossians 2 doesn’t address all these questions, but Paul does spell out a profound reality. Christian baptism connects us with Christ, and launches us into a new spiritual reality, in a way that nothing else does.

Might the “old nature” still rule and reign in some of our lives because we’ve never buried it with Christ and been raised to newness of life? Paul did not equivocate about this special grace.

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