It Matters a lot Who You’re With

I was in a jam and needed help. We were living in Denver and I saw a notice that the Christian Booksellers Association was going to be held that year at the Colorado Convention Center. Being surrounded by the best and latest books would be a bit like paradise. But I couldn’t get in. You had to be a member of the Association and I wasn’t.

Time was running out when I got a call. Lexa had been in my youth group when I lived in Texas and was in Denver and wanted to see us. She was in town with a publishing company that had a display at the CBA Convention and wanted me to meet her there.

I explained to her the problem and she quickly countered, “That’s not a problem. I’ll leave you a name tag at the registration desk.” I made my way to the Convention Center, found the front desk, and heard a voice.

“Rick, over here!” It was Lexa. The next few moments brought reunion hugs, “how are you?” greetings, and a name tag. When we approached the security guard at the top of the escalator Lexa looked at him and said, “He’s with me.”

One minute I was at the end of my rope. The next I was in the middle of a heavenly array of books. My drooling was a bit embarrassing but I didn’t care. I was in. Not because of anything I could do but because of who I was with.

It matters a lot who you are with. Especially when you are hanging on a cross. Most likely he and his partner in crime are there because they are insurrectionists. They’re guilty of similar crimes. They’ve been beaten. They’ve been put on a cross. But they aren’t the same.

One sees an opportunity to be a part of the group and joins in on the ridiculing of Jesus. The other sees his own guilt and Jesus’ innocence. It doesn’t look like he’s got a prayer, but a prayer is his only chance so he offers one. He pulls himself up on the nails in his hands as he pushes against the nails in his feet and with a gasp of air lets out his request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

He knows “Jesus” means “The Lord is Salvation” and hopes it is true. He merely asks to be “remembered,” which means “keep me in mind…think of me so that good may come to me.” It’s enough to get Jesus’ attention and he responds: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

“Paradise” was a well-known Persian word in that day that referred to a beautiful garden where one could find relaxation, refreshment, and delight. Jesus offers that to him that day, the day of his bodily death.

Could you use some hope for a place of rest and refreshment and delight? Then sit down with this criminal and ask him about the hope of Paradise. He’ll tell you it’s not the final destination, but it is the first destination after death. He was with Jesus, and that is Paradise.

Paul said, “Now to Him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think…” The criminal would agree. And he’d tell us: “Listen, I merely asked Jesus to remember me, to think some good thoughts my way. And he said that instead I would be with him. And I asked him to remember me at some unmarked time in the future. But he assured me he would remember me today. And I asked about his kingdom, something I didn’t have a clear picture of. And he promised me a place in paradise, something I understood and needed desperately.”

And if we could ask him today what we should ask of Jesus, he’d smile a “from one side of the face to the other” smile and say: “Ask big. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, just ask Jesus to remember you. And be ready to be surprised.”

I was. I was happy to just get in and see all the books that were coming out that year. Understand, this was pre-Amazon days. But I not only got to see them, I got a free copy of a book I coveted before it was released at the Convention because of who I was with. Not because of anything I could do.

The same is true about Paradise. You won’t get in because of anything you can do, only because of who you are with. You might want to start that relationship today. It will pay off in the future.

Question: How can you take a step to that relationship today?




Forgive, Roll Down all the Windows, and Crank Up the Music

Every week we get the Kleenex ready, put Hulu on our screen, and watch the latest episode of This is Us. I admit I’m usually the one who has a tear form first. I don’t even try to hide it. You can revoke my “man card” if you want. I’m one of those that gets into a well-written story. In this case, it’s like I’m somewhere in the room with these people as we walk with them through life.

You can only imagine the blubber fest when Randall is at his biological father’s hospital bed knowing it is his father’s final moments. Randall’s Bible is open. Already he’s lost a lifetime with this man. Now, after getting to know him in a rushed kind of way, he is about to lose him.

William took the oxygen mask off his face and began to speak. He gave Randall a collection of poems he had written for him. The aged cover page read, “Poems for my Son” by William Hill. Randall says he can get his wife and daughters to the hospital in a matter of hours but William responds: “I said goodbye when they were laying down. I want them to remember looking up at me, not down. Up.”

Then he repeats advice he had given him earlier. “Roll all your windows down Randall. Crank up the music.” His dying words were ones his son could live by.  [you can see a clip of this scene here]

Last moments are holy ones. You may have experienced some in your life. Truth is, someday we will be the ones uttering final words. Can you imagine what will they be? It seems as if our last words are words that reflect what our life was about.

At least that is true for Jesus. What he says in his dying words we see reflected in his life. The first words uttered from the cross were these: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He had preached forgiveness from the start of his ministry. “Pray then like this…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

But his final pulpit was his most powerful. On the cross he could ask for forgiveness because forgiveness was part of his being. Listen carefully to his words.

“Father.” The Greek word is “pater” but Jesus would have uttered an Aramaic word, “Abba.” It was a first word learned by young Jewish children, like our children learning to say “dada” or “mama.” But it was not just a word for young children. By Jesus’ day it was used by adult children to speak of their fathers. It was a term of intimacy and security and simplicity.

It was common to refer to your father in this way, but it was not common to refer to God with this word. And yet, Jesus did. There are seventeen unique prayers of Jesus in the Gospels and each one begins with “Father,” “Abba.” Jesus had a special relationship with God.

Because he had a special relationship he could ask his Father to act. He asks his Father to “forgive them.” The Greek word “aphiemi” can mean to “let go/send away” as with crowds. But here the meaning has the sense of “pardon” or “forgive.”

Jesus is able to ask for forgiveness of those who have wronged him because he sees them differently. “…for they don’t know what they are doing.”

And neither do we. And neither do the ones who wrong us. These dying words of Jesus are words to live by. He forgave us and expects his followers to learn to forgive others. In Matthew 18 he tells a story of a man who was forgiven much but turns around and refuses to forgive someone who owes him little. The point of his story? You will forgive in direct proportion to the amount of forgiveness you understood you have received.

So how do we become people who forgive?

  • We listen intently and let Jesus’ words become part of us.
  • We begin to see people as he did, people who don’t know what they are doing.
  • And we do as he did, we ask the Father to forgive them.

And when we can’t, we at least learn to “desire to have the desire” to forgive.  James Martin writes: “…wanting [to forgive] is a good start, because true forgiveness is a gift from God. It’s a grace. Moreover, to paraphrase St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, even if you don’t have the desire to forgive, if you have the desire for the desire, that’s enough. God can work with that.”

Jesus wants us to remember looking up at him. On the cross. Forgiveness frees us and the other person to roll down the windows and crank up the music.

Question: What do you want your final words to be? Will they be life-giving words?



How Your Work is One Way You Love Your Neighbor

The millennial generation aged 18-35 gets a lot of attention these days. We are told that more than anything they are searching for jobs where they can make a difference. And so we read about workplaces like Warby Parker—a popular startup where for every pair of glasses purchased, a pair is distributed to someone in need. Think about the difference you would feel you were making working at Warby Parker.

But it turns out that millennials are not the only generation that desire their work to make a difference and have purpose. So do older generations. A recent global survey of all ages revealed 74% of candidates want a job where they feel like their work matters.

Did you know it matters to God? It does. When writing to the church in Thessalonica the apostle Paul wrote in the context of “brotherly love” to “aspire to live quietly…and to work with your hands.” Some in the church had stopped working. Some were out of work but were forming a habit of letting others take care of them. And others were finding patrons to support them which threw them into the business of promoting their patron’s name. The problem with that was they found themselves in compromising situations, like attending business deals at the pagan temple.

So Paul tells them to “work with your hands.” It all goes back to God. In Genesis 1 we find a repeated theme: “And God said…and there was evening and morning, the first day.” This goes on through the six days of creation until we turn the page to chapter two of Genesis where we read, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.”

Everything we read that God did in chapter one is called work in chapter two. And in case you think he stopped after creation, note these words of Jesus: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” God works.

It should be no surprise then that God gave humankind work. Before he gave Adam a wife or before he gave him children, God gave Adam work. In Genesis 1:26 we discover God’s plan for humankind was to have “dominion over…all the earth…” Then in Genesis 2 he “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” God works and, because we are made in his image, we work too.

That means when you get up in the mornings and you get dressed and you show up for whatever job you have, you are doing so because it is God’s image in you to work. You’re not working just because you have to in order to pay the bills. You’re working because it is in your DNA to work.

And so Paul will not allow people who are made in God’s image to freeload off of other people. That is one of the problems he encountered with the church in Thessalonica. He also believed laziness would be a bad witness to the unbelieving culture around them.

Your work makes a difference. And maybe you haven’t seen it quite this way, but your work is spiritual. How? First, if you are a follower of Jesus you work as if you are working for God and not man (Colossians 3:23). Your work may at times be difficult because of your employer, coworker, or the demands of the job. But you approach it differently because you go about your work as God would want you to. God is at work with you because God is at work in you.

Secondly, you view your skills differently. You acknowledge that what you have to offer is something from God. He has skilled you in ways to be utilized for the benefit of others. Like Bezalel in Exodus 35 who was given skills to construct the Tabernacle, God has given you gifts to be used for the benefit of society.

Paul says when you work in this way, you are loving your brothers and sisters. You are providing something for them without needing them to provide for you. So if you teach, teach as God would have you teach. If you drive a school bus, do it with the care he would give it. If you outfit construction projects with electricity, do it with the precision you would if God were watching over your work.

He is, you know. He is because God works. And he has given you work to do. So do it today with a different perspective. And know that your work makes a difference.

Question: How can you approach your work differently to where it makes a difference?

When You Come to a Fork in the Road Go Towards Your Calling

Maybe you remember an ancient TV show called Friends. (Can you believe the last season of Friends was in 2004?) There was an episode where Monica asked a friend with whom she had started having sex, “Can we still be friends and have sex?” His answer? “Sure. It’ll just be something we do together—like playing racquetball.”

That notion has morphed today to the phrase “friends with benefits.” Greg Boyd has stated that sex today in our culture is seen as a “morally neutral recreational activity, essentially no different from racquetball.” Our culture has deemed it perfectly okay for sex to be enjoyed recreationally and that best happens outside of marriage.

The idea of setting sex apart only for marriage is a strange idea in our culture today.

The idea of setting sex apart only for marriage was a strange idea in Paul’s first century Greco-Roman culture too. F.F. Bruce writes in his commentary of 1 and 2 Thessalonians:

“…various forms of extramarital sexual union were tolerated and some were even encouraged. A man might have a mistress who could provide him also with intellectual companionship; the institution of slavery made it easy for him to have a concubine, while casual gratification was readily available from a harlot. The function of his wife was to manage his household and be the mother of his legitimate children and heirs. There was no body of public opinion to discourage porneia [the Greek word for sexual immorality], although someone who indulged in it to excess might be satirized on the same level as a notorious glutton or drunkard. Certain forms of public religion, indeed, involved ritual porneia.”

There was a lot of sex in the city of Thessalonica. Many—if not most—of the Christians that Paul is writing to came out of a pagan background where sexual promiscuity was the norm and widely tolerated.  They had to learn a new way to walk.

To followers of Jesus’ way in that culture Paul writes: “abstain from sexual immorality.” What Paul is teaching to most people in America or Europe comes off sounding ancient and out of touch. But it is part of what he says is God’s will for them. It is part of their sanctification, the way God has set them apart for his purposes.

Then and now culture says, “Go wherever your body leads you.” Paul teaches to “go wherever your calling leads you.” Their calling was found in his words:

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification…that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter…” (1 Thess. 4:3-5).

He is saying that marriage is to be based on something more than just sexual attraction, although sexual attraction plays a part in a marriage relationship. There is to be a sanctity about the relationship that honors the marriage and keeps the sexual act within that relationship.

This view of sex and marriage was new to the pagans coming to Christ in Thessalonica. We can guess that many would realize that they had sinned in regards to this teaching. They couldn’t go back and erase their steps.

That’s where the good news comes in. Paul greets them with these words: “Grace to you and peace.” It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder for anyone who hears God’s call and wants to meet him that his path is paved with grace.

And for those who desire to avoid sexual immorality, remember this: when you come to a fork in the road walk towards your calling, not your culture. Culture will often pull you away from God. But your calling will draw you towards him.

So follow God’s plan for marriage. And play racquetball with your friends all you want.

Question: How strong is culture’s pull on your life?