Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jonah: Missionary Gone Fishy or What?

The story of Jonah was one of my childhood favorites. When still young enough to be read a bedtime story, my answer to Mother’s question, “So what do you want to read tonight?” was more times than not answered by an enthusiastic, “Jonah!” (My second favorite was “Daniel and the Lion’s Den”.  Any surprise I like action movies?)

Jonah is one of those stories most people have heard of even if they don’t know very much about the Bible. We’ve heard the story primarily from the belly of the whale perspective. We seem to camp out on that part about the whale swallowing Jonah. Never mind that the Bible doesn’t call it a “whale” but a big fish.

Those who do get past three days and three nights in the belly of the whale…uh, fish part usually understand the story to go something like this:

God wants all the heathen to be saved. God calls Jonah to foreign missions and he doesn’t want to go. After being slammed by a storm, thrown overboard by those pagan sailors, Jonah ends up three days and three nights in the belly of a whale/fish whatever. Surprise! Jonah now is willing to go to Nineveh. He goes but he is not happy about it. More surprise…Nineveh repents even down to the animals. Jonah is still not happy with it. Jonah throws a fit under a vine. God is not happy with Jonah. Worm eats vine. Jonah’s not happy. God’s not happy. Nobody is happy. Except we assume the pagan sailors who made it to shore, a big fish recovering from digestive problems and the King of Nineveh, the people and their pets are all happy.

Moral of the story: When God calls you to foreign missions you should go.

Application:  Don’t you want to go?

The story of Jonah is not about Christian world missions. It can and should be applied to our mission work. But just to make Jonah into a recruitment poster for missionaries is to miss the point of the story.

You may have noticed I keep referring to “the story” of Jonah. I do believe there was a historical prophet named Jonah who went to Nineveh (By the way, Nineveh is on the outskirts of a town you have heard about lately in the news…Mosul.) And I personally believe Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days. But to argue with those who don’t swallow the part about the great fish (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) is for both of us to miss the message of Jonah.

The book of Jonah is a tightly knit, carefully woven story. It’s only forty-seven verses in the English bible in length. However, every word and phrase is carefully crafted to deliver a message.

God always wants us to hear His message. He wanted Jonah to hear what He was saying. God wanted Nineveh to get His message. And I believe God wants us to hear His message too.

For the next few blogs we will explore the story of Jonah. There is a message we need to hear about God, ourselves and the people God puts into our lives. Good stuff from a “Matthew Connection” point of view.

Besides…it is one of my favorite stories. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Try It...You Might Like It!

Try It...You Might Like It!

Here is a simple way to initiate praying for other people who you have never met before. Yes, praying for other people. Prayer is powerful and the more we pray for other people the more we will see Jesus move in our lives and the lives of others.

Taking the iniative to pray for people is the best way I have found to make space for God to use me in touching the lives of people.

And yes, I did say praying for people you have never met before. Depending on your background and personality type-- you are either checking in or checking out about now. If you are like most people I know, the idea of praying for people you don't know and have never met before is not your idea of a good time. 

But you will be amazed how easy it is and how comfortable it is when people are approached honestly, clearly and with genuine compassion. Let me outline one way I have found to be able to pray for people I have never met before.

You go out to eat. It is your practice to quietly bow your head and offer a short prayer of thanks before the meal. Here's what I discovered. After my server comes to my table, greets me, asks what I want to drink and then ultimately takes my order, this is what I say. I quietly speak the server's name and say,

"I (we) usually pray quietly before our meal. Is there something for you or someone you know that I could pray for when I (we) pray?"

You are sharing you usually pray before a meal as a normal practice. You let them know you're praying quietly so you're not going to go weird on them. You're just asking how you can include your sever in your prayer.

You're not asking to pray with them. You just asking them if they have something or someone you can pray for when you do pray.

Some of the responses I have heard from servers are:
"Thank you for asking."
"No one has ever asked me that before."
"That's the nicest thing I ever had a customer ask me."

I would say over 90% give me a specific prayer request. The requests range from someone in their family who is sick or a concern about a child. Some ask for prayer about upcoming job interviews. Some are students and have financial needs. Many ask for prayer for their children. I have even prayed for baby sitting needs so a parent can work without worrying about their child being safe.

More than once I have seen server's eyes tear up and share something that had just happened that day. Like a parent just diagnosed with a disease or gone to the hospital. And more than one mom asked me to pray for their teenage child.

Very few have said, "no". Some have smiled and said "No, I'm good" or "Can't think of a thing." My response is to smile and say "that's great, thank you". Those are the server's I love to pray for because I know it is God's timing for me to have them as my server. Here's how I pray for them:

"Jesus, please reveal yourself to (server's name). Show yourself to them and show them how much you love them. And do it in a way they will know it's because of this prayer." It will be fun to find out in heaven what happened as a result of these kinds of prayers.

Here's a response I have heard more than once. "Well, I'm not very religious". I just smile and say, "Neither am I but I do like to talk to God sometimes." Most people laugh and give me a prayer request.

Why am I suggesting this idea to you? Because the more we can share with others in a way that is genuine and natural, the more opportunities we will have to see Jesus move in amazing ways.

Isn't that what Matthew did? He took a normal situation and allowed Jesus the opportunity to step in and reveal Himself. Matthew had a few friends over to his house for dinner to meet Jesus. There were even some Pharasees that made it into the house. And Jesus took the opportunity to reveal that He was coming for the sick and hurting, and not for the "religious" who thought they didn't need Him.

Try this the next time you go out to eat. Now I don't do this everytime. Sometimes it just doesn't "feel right" and I don't do it. Sometimes...well, I just forget to do it. But when I do-- I am always amazed how Jesus uses those situations and surprises both the server and me.

Try it. You might like it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

"Disreputable Characters"

Matthew had an interesting set of friends according to Matthew 9:10 MSG. “Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his (Jesus’) close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them.” Where did these characters come from? Sounds like they were Matthew’s friends. Later the Pharisees criticized Jesus for setting such a bad example for spending time with such “crooks and riffraff”.

Let me ask a question: if Jesus came to your house or mine, what disreputable characters would he meet there? (I know some right now might respond, “Well, it depends on how many family members were there” but that’s a topic for another time.)

Look at this question from at least two different angles.

One is that we don’t have “disreputable characters” as friends. This is probably true if we have been followers of Jesus for a long time or come from a family of long time Jesus followers. Our friends tend to be nice, cool, respectable, spiritual—you name it. As followers of Jesus, we have made it a priority to not have disreputable characters as friends. You know, our friends tend to reflect to others who we are.

Unfortunately, it is all too often true what I remember a friend saying,

“Non-believers have two problems. One, they either don’t know a Christian or …two, they do know a Christian.”

They don’t know a Christian therefore they can’t hear nor see the good news lived out.  Or they do know a Christian who has such a condemning or negative attitude that these kind of Christians drive people away from Jesus.

If we really don’t have contact with people who are not Jesus followers, we need to find some…on purpose. Not as a “project” so we can set our witness sights on them and “get them” for Jesus. Besides, most people smell out this kind of hypocrisy a mile away. But because we are missing something vital in our relationship with Jesus when we don’t have others to introduce to him.

If you find yourself isolated from people who do not follow Jesus you might ask yourself:
·       “Why am I not serving someone who is not a follower of Jesus to the point that we become friends?”
·       “How did I get so isolated from people who need to hear and see Jesus from me?”
·       “When did I become so isolated that I would have to build some relationships with non- Jesus followers on purpose?”

Granted there are times when dysfunctional people need to be removed from our lives.  Abusers, manipulators, users, etc. But I think we’re seeing something different in Matthew’s case. He had “disreputable characters” as friends because he himself was a disreputable character. A tax collector for the Romans was not on the Jewish list of most favorites. The crowd he ran around with was made up of the outcasts of Jewish society. 

The amazing thing was he had just become a follower of Jesus and was evidently eager for his friends to meet Jesus.  And the truly great thing for us-- Jesus was eager to meet them.

One other angle to look on this disreputable character thing, how hard is it to think of ourselves as a “disreputable character”? I’m finding the times I get closer to Jesus are also the times when I’m more aware of just how much that I am accepted by sheer grace. It’s those times I am confronted with how very disreputable I am without the grace and love of Jesus I find Jesus getting closer to me.

And that self-awareness of how much I am a “disreputable character” helps me extend love and mercy to others. About the time I am ready to write someone off…I am reminded about Jesus being excited to have dinner with me. Me! Not that I’m into that “I’m just a poor sinner and no-good” kind of thing. But I know what good there is in me is not why Jesus loves me.  He loves me with complete awareness of who I am without him. And he loves me…a disreputable character.

So, how many disreputable characters would Jesus find in your house if he came to dinner…there would be at least one.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hitting the Reset Button

We've heard recently about politicians and elected officials hitting a "reset button". The idea is they get to start over, re-focus and pick up where they left off.

Image result for reset button

That sounds good to me so I would like to announce I am hitting the "reset button" for this blog. It's been a while since I have posted but I am ready to get it going again. 

So get ready, <PUSH> there I pushed the reset button on Matthew Connection.

What can you expect on this blog? "Matthew Connection" is written from the perspective of exploring ways to connect other people in our lives with the Jesus we are following. It comes from the story about Jesus and Matthew.

Passing along, Jesus saw a man at his work collecting taxes. His name was Matthew. Jesus said, "Come along with me." Matthew stood up and followed him.

Later when Jesus was eatting supper at Matthew's house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharasees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus' followers. "What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?"

Jesus overhearing, shot back, "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders." Matthew 9:9-13 MSG 

As soon as Matthew started following Jesus, he very naturally saw his friends and social contacts connect with Jesus at various levels. And Jesus evidently appreciated the opportunity to do so--especially when we hear his strong reaction to the questioning of the Pharasees.

Join with me as we explore how we can make "Matthew Connections" in our lives. It would also be great to hear your comments and stories about your "Matthew Connections".

Looking forward to hearing from you. 

(Man, hitting that "reset button" sure feels good.)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Matthew Connection: The Flow of Faith

The Matthew Connection: The Flow of Faith: Many are familiar with the story of the woman with the issue of blood.  She

The Flow of Faith

Many are familiar with the story of the woman with the issue of blood.  She's the one who pressed through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus' garment and was healed.  But not as many may be familiar with another story where people touched the hem of Jesus' garment. I'm referring to Matthew 14:34-36:
34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
The men of that region recognized a special guest had arrived in their region. Quickly word went out to other villages that Jesus had come.  The people's immediate response was to bring all the sick people they could to Jesus.  This is where it gets interesting.

It says that they specifically "begged" him to let the sick just touch the hem of his garment.

Maybe they had heard about the woman with the issue of blood being healed?  At any rate, they sent out the good news that Jesus had come so all the sick people should come and ask to touch the hem of his garment.  

Notice how Jesus went along with their request. Did Jesus plan on having them touch his gament for healing?  What is key here is seeing that Jesus will meet us at out point of faith and will work with us from there.  The people believed that in touching his garment they could be healed so that's where Jesus started with them.

I could see some ministers today saying, "Oh no, that's not how I do healing ministry.  I lay hands on people, now everyone who wants to be healed line up and wait for me to lay hands on you."  Maybe Jesus could have gone for the more spectacular effect by walking away to the closest mud puddle saying, "Everyone who desires to be made well follow me to the mud puddle."

I think Jesus was responding to the men's point of faith.  They put out the word to come to Jesus and touch the hem of his garment.  The faith of the men led the people to come and expect that if they touched his garment they would be healed.

And what's more, the men, acting on their faith, created an opportunity for the people to exercise their faith. There is a real "flow of faith" going on here.  Jesus has no set "program" but he will respond to faith wherever and in whomever he finds faith.  

This leads me to ask myself, "how often do I express my faith in a way that lets others have an opportunity to exercise their faith?"  Sometimes all someone needs is to hear us speak our faith out loud.  When we speak our faith out loud, that may be just the encouragement they need to step over the line of unbelief into their own place of trusting Jesus for the impossible; and we all know that with faith, nothing is impossible.

But what is this "touching the hem of Jesus' garment" all about?  Basically three things: God's Word, God's Authority and God's Power.

Jewish men typically wore an outer garment with tassels or "tzitziyot" tied to the four courners.  These tassels were made out of white and blue threads tied in 613 knots.  These knots constantly reminded them of the 613 commandments of Moses.  There were 365 prohibitions ("thou shalt not" laws) and 248 affirmations ("thou shalt" laws).  They reminded the man and everone else to walk according to the commandments of God's Word.

Only those with authority could afford these tassels.  The blue thread was very expensive since the source for blue dye came from a gland of a particular snail.  It took 12,000 snails to make up a thimble full of blue dye.  It cost the equivalent of $36,000 to make up one pound of cloth dyed blue in 200 BC. By 300 AD, this same one pound blue cloth would cost the equivalent of $96,000.  (By the way, Lydia in Acts 16:14 as a "seller of purple" would have been amoung some of the wealthiest women in the empire.)

Because of the expense, these tassels came to be seen as a sign of the man's authority. Remember David cut off the edge of Saul's garment and later repented of doing it.  Cutting off the tassel was taking a king's authority.

The power of God is signified in the most interesting way to me.  In Malachi 4:2, it is prophesied the Messiah as "the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings." The Hebrew word for "wings" refers to the outer fringe of a birds wing.  You have seen or seen pictures of an eagle or a hawk soaring in the sky.  You can plainly see the individual feathers on the edges of their wings.  These fringe feathers is what is specifically meant by "in his wings".  The picture is the Messiah will have healing power in the feathers on the fringe of his "wings" or his tassels.

Touching the hem of Jesus' garment is then an expression of faith in God's Word, God's authority and God's power to bring healing.  This simple act was a public sign of faith by the sick person.  Their faith in Jesus as Messiah with the Word of God exercising his authority through the power to heal is their response to Jesus.

But one last thought, it says that "all who touched were healed".  The implication is some sick people brought by friends to Jesus decided not to touch the hem of Jesus' garment?   What a lost opportunity by not following through with a simple act of faith.  

Some of us are at just such a point of recieving our healing.  We know Jesus is present as we hear the Word of God. We hear about Jesus' authority as God's Son and with it the power to heal.  But we stop just short of exercising our faith to recieve his healing touch.  

Others can bring us into an awareness of Jesus.  They can encourage us by their faith.  We are right at the point of making the connection for Jesus to do what He has promised.  But are we one of the ones who touch the hem of his garment or are we like the ones who hold back?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

“When is enough “enough”?   IS there ever an “enough”?

(Recently while subbing in a Christian high school, I passed a paper around the class with a voluntary assignment.  I asked students to write down their questions to this prompt:  “What question do you have about following Jesus right now?”  This is my response to the first of five questions that were asked by those high school students that day.)

Great question, isn't it?  We all can identify with the feeling “when is enough ‘enough’?” But this student's question goes deeper:  “IS there ever an 'enough'?”.   I know the pressure of trying to do or be enough as a follower of Jesus.  A nagging sense of hopelessness begins to emerge when we keep pressing on and on, only to discover that enough is never enough.  As we keep on trying to be or do enough, hopelessness turns to despair.  Then we wonder if there ever is such a place that we can reach called “enough”.

When I read this question, I was saddened by it.  Here was a teenage follower of Jesus who had reached the point of asking a question like this.  When we’re young, shouldn’t we feel optimistic, ready to tackle the world?

But there is another side to this question.  It’s actually a good thing if we come to this question early in our walk with Jesus.  Asking this question indicates arrival at a place to make a life-changing discovery.  If we discover that following Jesus out of the need for acceptance and approval, we will make the transition from living under the tyranny of works into the liberty of grace.  Let me explain.

The question “when is enough, enough” only makes sense out of a works or performance mentality.  A performance mentality grows out of this kind of thinking.  Jesus died for our sins.  If we believe he died for us and was raised from the dead, then we are forgiven.  This is grace.  Now that we are a follower of Jesus we are to show our commitment by following his commands.  Soon a relationship started by grace degenerates into maintaining our salvation by works. 

Unfortunately, performance mentality is reinforced by well-meaning people saying, “If you really are saved- you will pray more, read the Bible more, volunteer for the nursery more, spend less on yourself and give more...”

This can become very manipulative.  Trying to get young people to do “the right thing”, we tell our students “a Christian will...” then we fill in the blank with what we want them to do.

The power of a performance mentality many times is rooted by important people only giving us conditional love.  We are raised on messages of: “If you really loved me…”  “If you do this you will make me very proud of you…”  “Remember, people in our family don’t do …” 

But aren't there some things as followers of Jesus we are supposed to do?  And there are some things we are not supposed to do as followers of Jesus?  Well, yes and no.

“Yes”, there are behaviors that should be evident in a follower of Jesus.  And certainly there are some things we should stop or never do.

But the answer is “no”, if as followers of Jesus we attempt to get on the treadmill of life to earn or keep our relationship with Jesus.  There is no “enough” we can do to earn or keep our relationship with Jesus.

This is demonstrated in the baptism of Jesus.  Jesus comes to John the Baptist asking to be baptized by him.  John was baptizing people as a sign of their repentance from sin and cleansing to prepare for the soon coming Messiah or Christ.  When Jesus makes his request, John replies essentially, “No way.  I'm the one who should be baptized by you.”  But Jesus responds to John’s protests by saying he desires baptism to “fulfill all righteousness”.

What did Jesus mean?  The quick answer in his baptism Jesus was identifying with what God was doing through John.  Jesus was going to fulfill what the Father had started in John's ministry as the promised Messiah.  When John agreed and baptized Jesus, a Voice was heard saying, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”.

The affirmation of a father to a son or daughter is life-giving.  I remember a time riding in the car with my father.  It was during a time of some major disappointments in others and failures on my part.  He said to me, “John, you've been through some tough times.  But I want you to know your mother and I are proud of you.”  This word of blessing was powerful for me.  The power of this is demonstrated by the fact I can share this with you.   I have played the recording of it in my mind over and over.  When you father says he is pleased with you--it means something.

But the words that Jesus heard are even more powerful than the ones spoken to me by my earthly father.  Jesus heard “you are my son” from the Father.  God was declaring that He was the Father and Jesus was His unique Son.  Then Jesus heard, “in whom I am well pleased”.  A relationship was affirmed.

Now I ask you, what had Jesus done to deserve hearing those words?  Why was the Father well pleased with him?  Jesus had performed no miracle.  Not one leper had been cleansed, no blind eyes opened and no lame person was dancing because for the first time they could walk.  Jesus had not told one parable, no sermon on the mount, no “verily, verily I say unto you”.  What had Jesus done that was enough to be called son and that the Father was well pleased with him? 

Nothing.   Jesus was a son and accepted by the Father because this relationship had existed from before creation.  Jesus said that before Abraham was, “I am”.  Jesus’ relationship with the Father was not earned nor did he remain as son by his efforts. 

But remember Jesus was also fully human.  And this Jesus heard from the Father that he had the identity as a son and what's more, the Father was well pleased with him.  God was well pleased not in what Jesus had done but in who Jesus was...a beloved son.

Following the baptism we see Jesus going into the wilderness, confronting Satan and coming out of the wilderness in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Don't miss this.  Jesus was given an identity, and in that identity, Jesus had the full acceptance of the Father.  Jesus then lived, or “performed”, not in order to secure his identity or gain acceptance.  Jesus lived out of who he was, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, all given to him by the Father who had freely loved and accepted Jesus.

We do things just backward.  We don’t feel who we are in Jesus is enough.  We are desperate to be accepted.  We mistakenly believe acceptance is based on performance.  So we strive and work in order to do enough so someone will look at what we have done and accept us.  We hope when others think we have done enough to be accepted, they will give us the identity we grave. 

For example, we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  We want others to accept us as “real Christians” and give us that identity.  So we perform in order to be accepted so that we will have the identity we desire.

Then we discover a problem.  First, we never know when we've done enough so we perpetually try to do more, do better and measure up.  Second, running after our illusive identity on the “gerbil wheel” of Christian activities we end up exhausted, discouraged and ultimately wondering if all this is really worth it.

The good news of Jesus is, as we surrender our lives to him, we receive the identity as a son or daughter of God.  As sons and daughters, we are accepted, not for what we have done or what we do not do.  We are accepted because God freely loves us unconditionally like he loves Jesus.  And what about our performance?  Jesus finished the performance for our identity and acceptance in his death on the cross.  Now, as we accept by faith our new identity and acceptance in Jesus Christ, we can live in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our actions are the fruit of our relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ, not frantic attempts to obtain the Father’s acceptance.

At first when I became a follower of Jesus, I was so excited.  I wanted to please Jesus in everything I did.  Then, after a while, I discovered that following Jesus was really hard.  I wanted to love others but when certain people hurt me, I wanted revenge.  I tried thinking pure thoughts even while my mind immediately wandered to places it should not go.  Always trying harder, trying to “be good” and working to do my very best.  Still deep inside, I knew I was failing and there was always going to be something else I should have been doing while I was doing the other.  It was exhausting. 

Then came those points in my life where I got off the treadmill by giving myself permission to just do what I wanted, when I wanted to do it.  It brought relief at first.  But then as I began reaping what I had been sowing, I didn't like the harvest.  So, it was back to the treadmill of attempting to do enough and the cycle of performance began again.

Life turned into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde experience flipping back and forth between the prodigal son and older brother in Jesus' parable.  Rebelling against all expectations, till the frustration of not getting what I wanted turned me back to do everything right.  Then I became the angry older brother, doing everything right, still feeling distant from the father and remaining outside the house.  Those bracelets so popular a few years ago- “WWJD- what would Jesus do”.  I would never wear one because it felt like the bracelet was mocking me in my futility.  I could not do what Jesus would do, even if I knew what Jesus would do.

Then I discovered following Jesus was not just hard—following Jesus by trying to do enough was impossible.  Ironically, by trying to be like Jesus, life became all about me.  Jesus says apart from him, we can do nothing.  I found by trying to do enough only put me and my performance front and center stage—and I could not perform. 

It was then I found there is only one place to find my ‘enough’.  Meditating on Jesus at his baptism, I got in touch again with the unconditional love of the Father.  My identity became grounded in who the Father says I am because of my union with Jesus.  I started trusting in what Jesus had already done for me and not in what I could do for him.

If Jesus needed to hear those words “you are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” then I absolutely needed to hear them.  Those words empowered me to stop performing to be accepted and walk out a new identity.  I started being thankful that I am a beloved son in whom the Father is well pleased.  Then I discovered a fresh power of the Holy Spirit working through me, enabling me to do what I could not do.

Now don't get me wrong.  I still go back to the old performance mentality from time to time.  Then I will change my mind and start living out of my identity in Jesus, but that's okay.  I am working out my salvation as the Spirit leads me in every part of my life.  Whenever I sense the exhaustion of the performance treadmill, it's great to know I can jump off by a simple surrender of control to Jesus.  I even say sometimes, “I don't really want to yield control to you… but I want to want to”.  Jesus is willing to always meet me there, setting me free from trying to do enough and learning to rest in his enough.

When is enough, enough?  My story is there is a better question to ask.  The better question to ask ourselves is “when is Jesus' enough going to be enough”?  Then we can stop striving and start trusting.