The Ultimate Source of Greatness

“All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those
who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
Luke 18:14b (Common English Bible)
Every culture holds up its ideal of beauty, success and power. Similarly, every culture is judged by what it values. The type of person on whom our culture bestows recognition and honor is not easily missed. Magazine covers celebrate beauty, Jennifer Aniston named most beautiful woman by People Magazine, those who epitomize success on the cover of Success Magazine and those who command power in leadership on the magazine cover of Fast Company.  Bestsellers are indicative of the trends and tastes of the culture and advertisements of luxury items promise success, or the illusion of success, to those who can afford the purchase.
Jesus had a great deal to say about success and seeking status, “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” In these few words, Jesus questions the nature of our ambition; the character of the success we seek. Simply, Jesus asks, “What are any of us really after?” More deeply, Jesus questions where in our life plan does God come in? Do we imagine ourselves self-sufficient? Or do we recognize that God is the beginning and the end of everything, including our lives?
It is important to listen carefully to Jesus’ teachings, however, and notice that it isn’t human littleness that Jesus stresses but efforts of self-aggrandizement and grandeur. Often, we strive to go it alone, living our lives under our own power, making our own way, and if successful, grandly announce that we are self-made. All things, including other people, are subordinated to our own purposes and designs. There exists only one purpose in all our efforts – to get out of life all we can get. What we fail to grasp is that we are not here to live as we please, and to obtain all that we desire, but to live in a manner that pleases God and adds value to the lives of others.
Ours is an unspiritual culture. Though there may remain great numbers of people on church membership rolls, many of these same people speak and act in almost complete independence of God, as though God didn’t exist, or doesn’t really matter. They are led by their own desires to a shallow and superficial life. For Jesus this was not so. He was conscious of God each moment of the day, every decision made in devoted obedience to his heavenly Father. For Jesus, there could be no greatness apart from God, recognizing that God is the ultimate source of greatness. And it is that insight that Jesus most urgently wishes to convey here in these few words.


Recovering the Adventure of Faith

“Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ,
 and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.”
Romans 13:14 (Common English Bible)
            For some, the experience of the Christian faith lacks the heroic and adventurous texture of the lives of great biblical personalities. Safe, comfortable boredom is more often presented today in the life of those who follow Christ. Absent are uncalculated risks, the thrill of battling difficulties and the appetite for conflict and victory. The faith has become soft, the individual life one of self-indulgent behavior. The demands of scripture go unnoticed, perhaps on purpose, and everything is made too easy. The casualty is a faith without power or interest.
            In more honest moments, such people will often confess to a desire for something more, something deeper.  A world of risk and adventure is preferred over the predictable routines that our lives fall into. The zest of struggle and conquest teases our minds and the ever-present possibility of calamity and pain doesn’t diminish the lure. Rather, these are the factors, which make possible human happiness; joy the product of discipline and effort.
            Such a faith remains within the reach of anyone who desires it. It arrives along the route of spiritual discipline. Unlike military discipline, a discipline that is imposed from without, spiritual discipline emerges from within. It is self-imposed.  It builds spiritual muscle that is revealed in unquestionable character and contagious personalities. Discipline may seem, for a time, to be a thing of pain and not joy, but those who are trained by it are quick to demonstrate a life that is stronger, healthier and marked by joyful anticipation. Faith, properly experienced, becomes life’s grandest adventure.
            Those who endeavor to claim such an experience of faith are addressed in these few words from Romans, “dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ.” The daily discipline of arising from bed and dressing our bodies with clothes appropriate for the day is purposely chosen. Dress the spiritual body each morning, as the physical body is dressed. Strive to eliminate unchristian attitudes and thoughts and consider how to be more loving of others. Remain alert to the needs of others and less preoccupied with your own. And do not neglect the regular reading and reflection upon God’s word in the Bible. Think of how to please Christ throughout the day and such strength of faith as never known before will be given to you.


Disillusionment with God

 “The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.”
Isaiah 35:7 (Common English Bible)
            There is, perhaps, no greater disappointment in life than to experience disappointment with God. Missed opportunities, unrealized dreams and friends who fail us are no small matter. They can be debilitating at times. Yet, most people also recognize that such disappointments are the stuff of life. With a strong network of family and friends, many find that they are able to push through such disappointments. But what are we to do with our disappointment with God? This is the most shattering of disappointments. “No longer is there a wide, comfortable margin between peace and the edge of doom,” writes that great Scottish preacher, James S. Steward.[i]  Disillusionment with God is startling, surprising and overwhelming. In a deep spiritual sense, such disillusionment is taking-up residence in the desert.
            Isaiah has a word for those desert moments – or days. In dramatic fashion, Isaiah speaks of a grand reversal, “The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.” With incredible verve, he takes the most frightening and cynical judgment of the world that says that this life is nothing more than “burning sand” and reverses it. God is not absent nor will God remain silent. The word from the Lord is that the desert places of life will become an oasis; living water that quenches our fears and dispels the darkness.
            What does this mean? In effect, Isaiah acknowledges his common experience with ours that life is full of disappointments, broken dreams and dashed hopes. More, Isaiah is no stranger to fears that come like a bolt of lightening, unnerving our sense of comfort and security. But he also wants to remind us of history; Israel’s history of a God that is never far off, a God that appears in the midst of struggle and uncertainty with the hand of a shepherd, confidently leading us forward into God’s future for us. In every situation, even when the darkness of the hour seems to have the upper hand, grace reigns.
            Understand, of course, that the very struggle with disillusionment dispels any notion that faith is always experienced without struggle. Any spiritual journey occasionally moves through desert places, where the ground is hot and parched. But, Isaiah asks that we steadily move forward, particularly when our steps are labored and weak, for a wonderful discovery lies ahead of us, the same discovery that Isaiah made. Present circumstances that seem as burning sand will, by God’s promises, become a pool of cool water. Additionally, you will find yourself in the company of those who have discovered that they would rather travel the most difficult road with God than any other road without him.

[i]James S. Stewart, “Beyond Disillusionment to Faith,” The Wind of the Spirit  (Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1968), 70. 

Reducing Jesus

“When Simon Peter saw the catch, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!’”

Luke 5:8 (Common English Bible)

            Harry Emerson Fosdick once commented to his congregation, the Riverside Church in the City of New York, that “Many people have pretty much reduced their Christianity to admiration of Jesus.”[i]Initially, this seems rather harmless. Jesus is a glorious character – a G rated individual in an R rated world. The beauty and strength of Jesus provides comfortable – and safe – fodder for family-friendly conversation, a Disney-like character to share with children at bedtime. His compassion, his high moral code, and his extravagant forgiveness remain beyond reproach. Here is an individual that sets the bar high for our own living. It would be difficult to find anyone who does not admire this man.

            Yet, it is precisely that admiration of Jesus that creates so much difficulty. We cast our eyes upon Jesus, note his exceptional life and obedience to God, and then we look in the mirror. There is present a gulf, as wide as the east is from the west, between the man Jesus was, and is, and who we are. Yes, our admiration for Jesus is great. But consider the effect that has upon our own self-image. Few of us will possess the musical greatness of Mozart, the artistic talent of Michelangelo or political savvy of Lincoln. And no one will possess the lofty moral greatness of Jesus. We admire Jesus from a distance. But who can ever approach his character in their own life? That is why Peter said to Jesus, “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” Jesus’ flawlessness also makes him the most disturbing personality we ever face.

            It is precisely this reason, says Fosdick, that we don’t instinctively run to Jesus. Instinctively we try to escape him. We cannot live with ourselves and with Jesus.[ii]Anyone who takes Jesus seriously moves quickly beyond admiration to echo Peter’s anguish. Jesus is reduced to an extraordinary man that no one can ever, adequately, emulate. Jesus may be our ideal but the contrast between who we are and who Jesus is stirs exhaustion and despair. Anyone who doesn’t experience the hopelessness of Peter simply hasn’t taken Jesus seriously.

            The Good News is that the Bible has more to say about Jesus. Jesus is extraordinary in love and obedience. This is all true. But more than this, Jesus is the revelation of God’s desire to infuse our lives with the same strength and power we see in the person of Jesus. If Jesus were only a teacher, telling us how we ought to live, then despair would be ours. By our own strength and determination of will, we cannot live as Christ teaches. But what the disciples soon learned is that Jesus not only presented a clear vision of another way of life, Jesus was the conduit of God’s power for moving toward that vision. What a difference that makes! And it is that discovery by Peter that turned his first revolt from Christ to abiding, joyful hope.


[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Taking Jesus Seriously,” Riverside Sermons (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 284.
[ii] Fosdick, 285.

When Christ Knocks

“Look! I’m standing at the door and knocking. If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to be with them, and will have dinner with them, and they will have dinner with me.”

Revelation 3:20 (Common English Bible)

            There comes the moment for each of us when we can no longer deny our inner darkness and weakness, our deficiency against the common struggles of daily life and we become weary. Exhausted, we surrender our grasping to be in control, to be strong and without need for anyone, and we seek something else – a union with some strength and purpose beyond ourselves. This verse from Revelation comes to us at such moments. Here we are told that Jesus stands at the door and is ready to come in, if we allow it, and to take possession of our lives, to re-create our inner life and fill it with light and strength. As we stop grasping and are, rather, grasped by Jesus, we are gradually lifted by him, in spite of ourselves, and, from degree to degree, changed into the likeness of Christ.

            For this to proceed in our own life we must first recognize the knock of Jesus. How is that done? It may not be immediately recognizable. It may only be a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the movement of your life; a growing discomfort with the hopes, desires and ambitions that have fueled your daily decisions. Perhaps the knock is found in protest, deep in your heart, about what others are saying to you about this, or that, or another person and you sense that all of it is wrong. Something stirs within you for another conversation, one that is nobler, more loving, and lovelier. It may even be the Christ-like manner you witness in another and find that you desire to share in that behavior. The knock may simply be an impulse, a nudge, a longing of the heart.

            But to recognize the knock is insufficient. It is inconceivable that anyone would hear a knock on the front door of their home and simply ignore it. To ignore an unsettled heart is just as inconceivable. A knock demands to be answered, the door opened. What stands on the other side may be refused but it must be acknowledged. For a disciple, the door is opened and Christ is admitted at once. There should be no postponement. A postponement weakens the spirit and may result in missing Christ altogether, Christ possibly never returning again. To welcome Christ is to learn of him, to listen deeply to what he teaches and then to obey all that we understand of him. It is to acknowledge that life without Christ was failing us and to utterly reject any notion of negotiating with what Christ demands.

            What remains is a promise. The person, who hears the knock, opens the door and admits Christ into the inner place of their life discovers a deep and abiding communion with him, “and (I) will have dinner with them, and they will have dinner with me.” This is a relationship with Christ that moves way beyond simple obedience. It is the richest and most intimate of relationships; a relationship where one heart deeply shapes the heart of another and two are like one. Christ becomes more than a savior. Christ becomes one who makes us a better person and shares the journey of life as a contemporary, providing life with a peace and joy and adequacy that is simply unavailable without him.