Michael Kelley's Blog, page 2
February 25, 2014
February 24, 2014
There is a reason why John 3:16 is still probably the best known passage in the entire Bible. Not only is it because it provides a great summation of the gospel message; it’s also because it is, in some ways, easy to talk about. The verse in question is about God’s great love for us; it puts a spotlight on this love and it opens the door to eternity to “whosoever will” regardless of your past or your present.
It is, you could argue, an easy text.
But if you look at the Bible holistically, “easy” texts like that sit side by side with more difficult ones. Take, for example, the story you find in Numbers 31.
Moses, at the command of the Lord, leads the Israelites to attack the people of Midian, and the Israelite army killed every last man (Num. 31:7). They captured the Midianite women and children, though, and took them back to Moses. That’s when Moses ordered not only the women but the children to be killed (Num. 31:13-16). It’s disturbing to say the least.
Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easy as John 3:16, does it? Some have tried to deal with texts like these by simply throwing them out; this is the Old Testament, after all, and there’s a reason why we have the New Testament. So the simplest way to deal with difficult texts like these is to act like they don’t exist. They don’t get preached; they don’t really even get mentioned except along with phrases like, “Well that was weird.”
But if you believe in the whole revelation of God in Scripture, that’s really not an option. These Bible stories are there; indeed, these are the stories the early church looked at and preached to each other as the New Testament was still being inspired and written. So how do you deal with difficult texts like these?
I want to offer a potential first step. This first step is the one that comes before all the historical analysis and word studies. It’s before the careful examination of the context of the writing and the discovery of what this reveals to be as equally true about the character of God as the love that John 3:16 highlights.
The first step is to acknowledge that the problem with the text lies with me – not with God.
See, when we find a text to be difficult, it’s usually because of one of two reasons. Either it offends my preferences, or it offends my supposed sense of morality. In the first case, we don’t like a text because it demands us to change some loved behavior in our lives, and most of the time we don’t want to do that. It’s easier, then, to make the problem seem to be about the text itself.
In the second case, we have a problem with God doing something that doesn’t seem to be moral or right as we understand morality and rightness. So we think and we ponder over how this God who is supposed to be so loving can do something that seems so vicious.
In either case, though, the starting point of our objection is ourselves. We are assuming that we know the standard of right and wrong, good and bad. We look to ourselves to define what is love or moral. And in so doing, we reveal that we still have a very high opinion of ourselves.
When we are willing, on the front end, before anything else, to assume the opposite – that good and truth and love are all defined by God, for He is the Author of them all, then we must also assume that the problem in our understanding is not in the action of God but in our understanding of that action.
That’s when we’re ready to start digging in. Until then, though, we will still at some level read the Bible not in an attitude of humility but in arrogance, looking for a God that fits perfectly with how we think He should.
February 20, 2014
February 19, 2014
Lord, please save my children from a dramatic testimony.
Everyone loves to hear an old-fashioned, rip-roaring, “glory!” conversion testimony.
You know the kind I’m talking about. The dude who was a member of the Crips, a meth dealer, and a mob hit man before he found Jesus. Or the girl who grew up in a Christian home, then got involved in drugs, then got pregnant, then joined a biker gang, then got saved. Or the hardcore atheist who hit rock-bottom, had some sort of existential crisis, and then found Jesus in the most unlikely of places.
Every good testimony involves finding Jesus in the most unlikely of places, like a homeless shelter, or a working banana plantation, or a bowling alley. Every good testimony also involves a grandmother who prayed every day or a mother who never gave up hope. A really good testimony will include running from the cops and/or beating up a Christian who shared the gospel.
But many of us don’t have a particularly gripping testimony. I grew up in a Christian home with a wonderful mom and dad. My dad read the Bible to us every morning before breakfast. I was the kid who won the Bible trivia contests in Sunday School. I never did drugs. I didn’t have premarital sex. I didn’t run around with the bad crowd. I never served time in a juvenile detention center. I didn’t get into fights (although one time I tried to pick a fight with a really small kid who was annoying me, but that’s a different story).
I wasn’t an angry kid who listened to Rage Against the Machine and drew the anarchy symbol on his Chuck Taylors. I listened to dcTalk and Michael W. Smith (“Secret Ambition” was one of the greatest Christian songs of all time). My childhood and teenage years were relatively drama free.
As I’ve gotten older and interacted with more people, I’ve come to realize what a blessing it is to not have an interesting testimony. See, here’s the thing: Testimonies don’t happen in a vacuum…
February 18, 2014
There are certain attributes of Christian character that get more press than others. While we might emphasize things like purity or peace, we might neglect others like self-control or patience. Meekness is one of those characteristics that falls into the second category. So neglected is this attribute that many newer translations don’t even translate the beatitude “Blessed are the meek” any more. Instead, they translate it as “humble” or “patient.” But I think there is something essential about the word meek that isn’t included in those other terms.
In Greek, the word “meek” is also used to describe animals on occasion, but animals that have been tamed. So meekness isn’t weakness; it isn’t loss of strength. A tame animal retains all of the strength that it’s ever had, but it has learned to harness that strength. To keep it under control.
Maybe “meekness” has fallen on hard times because we have equated it with weakness. “Meek” is synonymous with mousy; it’s someone who won’t stand up for their own rights and privileges not because of anything virtuous, but because of cowardice. Biblical meekness, however, is nothing of the sort. It isn’t a loss of power; it’s the harnessing of power. And there is nothing weak about harnessed power.
While the Bible might not offer us a strict definition, it does offer us a picture..
There’s a story about the meekness of Abram in Genesis 13. For a while, Abram and Lot had been traveling together, but because of the size of both of their households (many goats, wives, servants, and such), the land couldn’t support them. So they came to a fork in the road.
Now in my imagination, this moment looks like a cartoon. The road forks, and to the right the sun is shining, there’s dew on the ground, little bunnies and deer are scampering together, the grapes are as big as beachballs – you get the idea. To the left – well, to the left there are holes in the ground, smoldering embers, dead trees, and growling wolves.
That’s probably a little extreme, but there was clearly a difference in the two roads. One road appeared to be better than the other. And Abram does something unthinkable – he gives Lot the choice:
“Then Abram said to Lot, ‘Please, let’s not have quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, since we are relatives. Isn’t the whole land before you? Separate from me: If you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right I will go to the left’” (Genesis 13:8-9).
Lot chose the good road. The well-watered road. The easy road. And Abram let him do it, surprisingly, since Abram as not only the older man but also the leader of the family had every right to take what appeared to be the better road. The very fact that Abram asked the question must have been shocking to someone like Lot, since it should have been assumed that Abram would simply take what he wanted and leave anyone else to deal with the leftovers.
What does this have to do with meekness? I think it goes back to what we said earlier, that meekness involves harnessed power, taming emotion, and humility. Abram voluntarily put aside his rights and preferences; he didn’t lose them – he harnessed them. In a 21st century context, one in which you have to look out for number 1 or nobody else will, Abram stands in stark contrast. In meekness, Abram did not worry about advancing His own cause.
Maybe that’s meekness, especially today. It is the confidence that God is our advocate, that He will provide and care for us, and so there is no need for us to advance our own cause. Lot advanced himself, and that effort got him right in the middle of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram was meek, and he became the intercessor for Sodom and Gomorrah.
The meek can put aside their rights, privileges, and power because they believe that if God is for them, none can be against them. The meek have been robbed of the need to advance their own cause and status and had it replace it with confidence in the will and fatherhood of God. They have this confidence that allows the harnessing of power because of what we find in Christ. He was described as meek. But His meekness wasn’t from lack of power. Jesus was meek not because He was incapable, but because He voluntarily harnessed His power. No one was taking His life from Him; out of His meekness He was allowing it to be taken.
That’s why we can give away our rights. That’s why we can willingly take the backseat to others. That’s why we can take the cost into ourselves. It’s because we know that we don’t have to advocate for ourselves any more; we have a better advocate on our behalf. We become meek, then, as we move more deeply into the meekness of Jesus.
February 17, 2014
February 13, 2014
Miriam had been there through it all.
The sister of Moses and Aaron, she bore witness to her people’s slavery. She saw the terrible injustice of the infanticide at the hands of Pharaoh. But she was also discontent to watch her little brother fall prey to the hands of a tyrant, and she was courageous enough to take action. There was the basket, the river, the approach of the daughter of Pharaoh, then Miriam’s offer to fetch her own mother – the true mother of this baby – to nurse him.
She saw Moses grow up as a prince of Egypt and then watched him leave Egypt in disgrace. She was there when he came back; she saw the miraculous plagues and the divine deliverance at the Red Sea. She was a prophetess who sang songs about the greatness of God. Strange, then, that we see her as the critic of this same brother that she had saved, followed, and loved in Numbers 12:
“Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because of the Cushite woman he married (for he had married a Cushite woman). They said, ‘Does the Lord speak only through Moses? Does He not also speak through us?’ And the Lord heard it…” (Num. 12:1-2).
In looking at verse 1, there are a couple of things important to notice. The text uses the feminine form of the verb, implying that Miriam is the instigator. Sure, Aaron goes along with her, but she is the leader. The main critic. And her supposed criticism was about Moses’ wife; he had married a Cushite woman. Perhaps this was Zipporah, the wife we know about it. Maybe it’s a second wife and Moses had remarried; we don’t know. But in either case, it seems a bit strange doesn’t it? After all she’s seen? All they’ve been through together? All their shared experiences, both good and bad?
Criticism is often that way. It bubbles to the surface, and sometimes it might even be valid:
- Those people might really be spending their money in a careless way.
- She might not actually be mothering her children well.
- He might truly be an arrogant jerk who thinks he knows it all.
- That church might not truly be challenging the people enough.
The question isn’t so much about whether the criticism is valid; it’s about what’s behind the criticism. When we are critical of others, there is often something deeper going on below the surface in our own hearts. That deeper issue comes bubbling to the surface in our expressed opinions of others, and the more sanitized the criticism is the easier it is to hide behind it and not deal with what’s really happening internally. In other words, criticism is many times just a smoke screen; we are discontent or insecure or jealous about our own position or abilities, so we deal with that insecurity by finding a sanitized way to criticize others. That was, I think, the case with Miriam here. Her real issue was not Moses’ wife; it was her disapproval of her own status in the community.
But God heard her:
“As the cloud moved away from the tent, Miriam’s skin suddenly became diseased, as white as snow. When Aaron turned toward her, he saw that she was diseased and said to Moses, ‘My lord, please don’t hold against us this sin we have so foolishly committed. Please don’t let her be like a dead baby whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’
“Then Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘God, please heal her!’
“The Lord answered Moses, ‘If her father had merely spit in her face, wouldn’t she remain in disgrace for seven days? Let her be confined outside the camp for seven days; after that she may be brought back in.’ So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on until Miriam was brought back in. After that, the people set out from Mazeroth and camped in the Wilderness of Paran” (Num. 12:10-16).
The discipline is fitting – Miriam is placed on the outside looking in, ostracized from the people she so desperately thought she should be leading. In addition, if they strictly followed the law recorded in Leviticus 14, her reinstatement might include animal sacrifice, ritual sprinkling, and even shaving of the head. So in response to her true issue, God put her in a situation that exposed her greatest insecurity; He stripped her of her greatest pride. You could, I suppose, look at this and conclude that God is no doubt cruel. Or you could look at this as God moving swiftly and quickly to deal with the issue Miriam tried to mask with her criticism. He went straight to her heart, forcing to the surface that which had only been symptomatic before. Like a good surgeon who knows that sometimes you have to cut deep, God goes to the core.
I wonder, today, when I have the chance to criticize others, what that might be symptomatic of in my own heart? What insecurity or discontentment is behind it? What am I trying to hide with my sanitized criticism of others? Whatever it is, the gospel has something to say to it those areas in which we feel insecure, dissatisfied, or entitled. And that something is that we only find true security in Jesus.
Back to the subject of Miriam, we see a truly remarkable response from Moses. Rather than pointing, rather than feeling smug, rather than enjoying the misfortune of others, Moses cries out for her good. Here is the foil for Miriam – one who is secure in his relationship with God and where God has placed him, and therefore has no need to prop himself up on the ladder built of other people’s backs. This is what happens when we dwell deeply on our full and complete acceptance in Jesus.
Rather than hiding our insecurities behind sanitized criticism, we are free to actually seek the good and prosperity of others.
February 12, 2014
This morning I’m driving to Jackson, TN to speak at chapel for the students of Union University. I consider this an enormous responsibility – it always is when someone else invites you to deliver a message from their pulpit. You are, in that moment, not only representing God (which is enough to make one tremble) but also you are representing the person who has been kind enough to invite you. But beyond the responsibility, this is also an enormous privilege. That’s because there are few things in the world I enjoy more than speaking to college students. I thought I might tell you a bit about why I love it so much, and I’ve taken the liberty of starting each of my 3 points with the letter “P” (you know, cause I’m preaching today):
Ever been around college students? The passion is almost tangible. Everything in the world is the most exciting thing in the world. They don’t care that they don’t have any money, ate mustard for dinner last night, and have slept a total of 3 hours in the past 7 days. It doesn’t matter because everything. Is. Awesome. All at the same time. As you grow, I think you naturally lose some of this enthusiasm and zest for life; it’s great to see it in action every once in a while just to be reminded of the common grace God has given to all of us every single day, not to mention the matchless grace He has extended to us through Jesus.
The university setting is for most anyone one of the defining atmospheres of life. This is the time and place where serious life decisions are starting to be made. Whether you recognize it or not, you are laying down the bricks that will be the foundation of your finances, relationships, and career day by day. If you want to influence the future, then, there may be no better environment than with a bunch of freshmen. I think about my own time in college and graduate school – the people I interacted with, the things I learned, and the values that were established – these are with me now, and I’m so thankful for those who were willing to invest in me at that age to form in me what I didn’t even know was so foundational.
One of the great things about standing in a setting like I will have the chance to do today is that I have no idea who is represented in that room. I have no idea where they came from, much less where they are going – but just think of it. Leaders, husbands, wives, pastors, businessmen and women – all people of such incredible potential to contribute great things to the kingdom of God. You simply don’t know, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. You speak, then, assuming that the people in that room will change their own portion of the world, and it brings an increasing weightiness to the opportunity before you.
If you would, I’d love for you to join me in prayer for this particular group of students today. Thanks for reading.
February 11, 2014
I only in my wildest dreams can shoot the 3-ball like this guy. Here’s the story:
Kevin Grow of Bensalem, Pennsylvania, is the manager of his high school basketball team. He also has Down syndrome. He recently got to play the last two minutes of the game on senior night, finishing out his high school basketball career…
February 10, 2014
Several weeks ago in his series in the Book of Hebrews, our pastor dropped a line that has been ringing in my ears ever since:
“God has not left us without a word…”
The context came during a sermon centered on the very opening of Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, he has spoken to us by His Son. god has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
We do not serve a voiceless, nameless God, but One who is communicative with His people. And thank goodness He is.
Imagine, for a moment, what life would be like without a word. Imagine walking into a new school without a class schedule, a map, or an idea where the cafeteria is located. Imagine starting a new job when your manager didn’t explain fully the expectations of the role or how you can be successful or that on Fridays everyone wears sweatpants to the office. Imagine moving to a new city and having no one to tell you which part of town to live in, where to buy groceries, or where the closest park is. Imagine life without a word, and now imagine life without a word from God.
It’s aimless. Purposeless. Directionless. And very, very lonely.
This is the reality for many of us, not only because many don’t believe God has left us a word, but also because many others claim He has and yet live like He hasn’t. Think, for a minute, about how often as Christians we make some version of this statement:
“I just God would tell me His will about…”
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve never had God sky write me a message about what house to live in or spell out the name of the right job in my alphabet soup. So it’s not as if every decision we have to make it absolutely clear. But neither is it the case that God has not spoken. He has spoken, and His Word stands. So what does that mean for us? Many things, but here are a couple to think through.
1. Because God has given us a word, we have a responsibility to listen.
There have been so many times in my life when I have moaned about not knowing what God wants me to do this or that. Even though in the moment those seem like gargantuan decisions, they are only a small part of life. If you want to put a percentage on it, you could estimate that we spend about 10% of our decision capacity on things like these. That leaves 90%. And most of that is in general areas of life – and God has plenty to say about that. He has said much about relationships, priorities, money, marriage, parenting – you name it. But we get so fixated on the 10% that we fool ourselves into thinking that God hasn’t spoken at all. He has, but we often aren’t putting ourselves in a posture to listen.
We listen by doing the same, old things that we have always done – we read, we pray, we meditate, then we act on what we hear. Simply put, we don’t have much room to cry about what God isn’t saying if we aren’t listening to what He is saying.
2. Because God has given us a word, we don’t need to look for another one.
One of the early heresies that permeated the church was something called gnosticism. Though it has many forms, much of it centers around the idea of having some kind of secret knowledge that’s only available to a select few. As we look around the evangelical today, I have to wonder if gnosticism is still out there, just wearing a different set of clothes:
- Thinking we have discovered something new that no one else has ever discovered about God before.
- Looking for “deep” things outside the revelation of God.
- A sense of superiority because of some kind of unique relationship with God.
All of these traits and more stem from a disbelief in God’s revelation of Himself. They are all searching for some kind of ever elusive “else” that manifests itself into looking further and further out when we should be looking further and further in. Again, simply put – God has given us a word. And He is not going to contradict Himself.
Instead of moaning and searching, we can live with a sense of gratitude that although God could have left us to squander on our own, He did not. He chose to communicate with us. And He even went further than giving us His book; He gave us Himself. As we dig into the written Word of God, we find ourselves coming alongside the Living Word of God. And that’s where true life resides.