Set free from the to-do list

I often start the summer with a to-do list on my mind. The list includes projects I’d like to get done, places I’d like to go, people I’d like to see. Summer offers the potential of better weather, a little more free time and the chance to get things done that get put to the side during the school year. But often the end of August comes sooner than expected. The list never gets completed. I don’t expect it to be different this summer.

The to-do list is a harsh taskmaster. No matter how hard we try, the list never tells us we’ve done enough. It makes us feel guilty. The list tells us we can’t afford to rest and relax. The list keeps reminding us of all the work that still needs to be done.

The list doesn’t include some things that are nourishing to the soul but not valued by the taskmaster of the list. Things that should be on our summer to-do list but often aren’t include: playing with a child, visiting with a friend, enjoying a sunset, praising the Creator while watching ocean waves roll in, marveling at a majestic mountain, listening to some relaxing music and reading a good book.

After a time of serving people the disciples returned to Jesus and “reported to him all they had done and taught.” They hadn’t gotten it all done, though. So many needy people were coming “that they did not even have a chance to eat.” No matter how much they got done, their to-do list kept growing. Then Jesus did something surprising. “He said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place” (Mark 6:30-32).

Jesus told the to-do list, “You’re not in charge any more. You don’t say what has to be done and what can’t be done.” Jesus is the Lord in charge. His word to His children is much different than the never-satisfied demands of the to-do-list taskmaster. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The to-do list is like the law of judgment. We can never keep it perfectly. It humbles us and shows us our sin. We fail to do all it demands. But Jesus fulfilled the demands of the law. He completed every part of the to-do list that is necessary for our salvation. We are set free from the to-do list, “free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do … God did by sending his own Son … in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us” (Romans 8:2-4).

It is good to be active in service this summer, but do so not because the to-do list says you have to. Actively serve the Lord and others because Jesus loves you and has set you free to serve in a whole new way.

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Jesus is the name to remember

IMG_3135The baker was told three times the initials on the cake were to be CJ. But when the cake was picked up it said JC. It kind of worked out better that way than if the baker had got it right. It served as a reminder that we ought to focus on JC – Jesus Christ – and not on CJ.

The world tells us to get our name out there. Proud business leaders, politicians and celebrities want as many things as possible named after them. When we’re ruled by sinful pride we care a great deal about whether they get our name right and we want our name remembered.

Those who follow Jesus should want a different name than our own to be given prominence and remembered. We want the name of Jesus proclaimed everywhere. We want the name of Jesus to receive the attention and praise. Getting His name right is what matters most, for it is His name that is above all others. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:9-10).

Jesus’ name is to get the most attention because it is Jesus who loves us and gave His life for our sins. His name is given the greatest honor because it is the name of the One who conquered death. It is the name of the only One who can save us. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

In a song of a few decades ago, “Fame,” the singer cries out, “Remember my name.” She longs for recognition and for the crowd to notice her talent and ability. The song might be old, but in this day of the selfie and social media and concern over how many likes your Facebook status receives, the longing to be noticed and the desire to have people “Remember my name,” may be greater than ever.

A recent Christian song speaks of the temptation to “Make a name the world remembers.” It is a temptation to pursue dreams that are empty and won’t satisfy. The song calls for people to have different, counter-cultural type of values. “I don’t want to leave a legacy. I don’t care if they remember me. … Jesus is the only name to remember.”

Even when they get your initials right on the cake, it still only lasts a short time. That is how it is with the world’s praise and attention. It is as lasting and filling as frosting on a cake. True significance and the filling of your soul is found when you stop trying to get your name remembered and instead you remember how great and glorious is the name of Jesus.

Trust the power of the cross

If you come to a room with piles of junk that need to be discarded and much cleaning needs to be done, you probably wonder, “where do I start?” We ask that same question as we look around us at problems in the world. Things can seem like such a mess. All kinds of clean-up work is needed. Where do we begin?

The New Testament congregation in Corinth was a messed-up place in need of cleaning. People in the congregation were fighting with each other and even taking one another to court. There was sexual immorality among them that Paul said was “of a kind that does not occur even among pagans” (I Corinthians 5:1). Sometimes their worship services were so full of chaos and disunity that Paul said, “your meetings do more harm than good” (I Cor. 11:17). Where to start in cleaning up such a mess?

In his letter to the congregation in Corinth Paul addresses the issues going on. He appeals to them that “there may be no divisions among you” (I Cor. 1:10). He calls them to “Flee from sexual immorality” (I Cor. 6:18). He urges them to conduct their worship services in an orderly manner. But most of all Paul writes to them about Jesus and the cross and the resurrection.

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). Paul was convinced that the best way to clean up the mess in Corinth was to teach them about what Jesus did at the cross for them. Helping them to know the sacrificial love of Christ was the best hope for helping them unite together in love. He believed if their hearts were truly gripped by the good news that Jesus died for them, they would turn from sexual immorality.

The proclamation of the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the most effective way to bring cleansing to messed-up lives. It is tempting to think we’ll clean them up with the verbal equivalent of a power washer, blasting away at them for how wrong we believe they are. We may think arguing and reasoning and piling on guilt will cause them to clean themselves up. Nobody can clean themselves up in their own power. It is Jesus alone who can do the cleaning that is needed.

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:22-23). Preaching Christ crucified may seem like a simplistic answer when the problems are so complex and some people are so deep into sin and so far from the Lord. The good news of Jesus is the power of God. The message of Christ is of first importance. Jesus died for our sins. He rose to life again and conquered sin and death. That is the truth people most need to hear. That is the truth with the greatest potential for changing lives and changing the world.

What do we do about all the problems around us? We start with telling people again and again about Jesus’ amazing sacrificial love.

Jesus understands

When you’re used to being surrounded by people with the same skin color as you, it’s a unique experience to be in a large crowd and nobody around you is the same color as you. I am thankful I have had that experience.

The first time I went to India it wasn’t hard for the people meeting me at the airport to know who they were looking for. I stood out in a sea of dark Indian faces.

When I visited Jesse Long and Ben Jore in Tanzania we went to a remote village in the bush. They didn’t have electricity or running water and it was probably the first time they were visited by any white people. The lightness of our skin color was a pretty unique thing for them to see.

It is good for everybody to have the experience, at least once in their life, of being surrounded by people who don’t look like them. It can be a little uncomfortable. We may say we want to stand out, but the reality is, we often try to blend in. Most of us don’t like to have people stare at us and wonder why we look different.

I had the feeling in that village in Tanzania that some of the people were looking at me and wondering what had happened and where had all my color gone. We all do that kind of thing. We wonder, and sometimes make terribly wrong assumptions, about those who are different from us.

Having the experience of being in the minority can help us, when we’re part of the majority, to sympathize with those who are not like the rest. Walking in their shoes, even if only for a short period of time, can help us to understand it is not so easy to be different from the majority around you.

Sometimes people who are healthy will spend a day in a wheelchair or disabled in some other way to see what it is like to get around and experience how people treat the disabled. They find out they are treated differently and looked at differently. They don’t volunteer to do it for a second day.

Finding out the nature of somebody else’s struggles is often hard and painful. Jesus, however, out of love for us, chose to experience what our struggle is like.

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.” He shared in our trials and challenges. He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 2:14, 18, 4:15). He understands this life can be hard. He graciously walked the path we walk. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). Choosing to become familiar with rejection, pain and suffering – that’s grace.

Even if we look like the people around us, we still have times when we wonder if anybody understands our hurts. We give thanks that Jesus does. We can cry out to Him and always find a sympathizing ear. He chose to become One who sympathizes so that He could be the One who sacrificed His life to save us from our sins. By faith in Jesus we go from being outsiders to being welcomed in as beloved children of God.

The surprising ones Jesus loves

In a movie or TV show, usually within the first few minutes, you can guess which handsome guy and which beautiful girl will eventually get together and fall in love. It’s different in the Gospels. They tell a love story that doesn’t follow the expected script.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were sure they were God’s favorites. If God wanted to be with anybody, He would certainly want to be with them. They were proud of how well they did at following the rules. They faithfully went to the temple and kept all the religious rituals. They expected the way the story was going to go was God would reward them more than anyone else because of how good and righteous they were.

Then Jesus came along. He knew the Old Testament better than the religious leaders. His wisdom was like none they had ever seen. He lived a life of integrity and they were unable to find any fault in Him, even though they tried hard to find some. But the people He enjoyed hanging out with and having meals with were sinners and tax collectors. Jesus didn’t follow the script the way the religious leaders thought it was supposed to go. They expected when the Messiah came He would choose them as the ones He wanted to be with. What was Jesus doing, wanting to be with those undeserving sinners?

Jesus chose a despised tax collector, Matthew, to be one of His 12 closest followers. Matthew had a dinner at his house and invited Jesus. And Jesus came. That wasn’t in the script. “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and “sinners”?’” (Matthew 9:11).

Zacchaeus was another tax collector who had cheated a lot of people out of their money. But in a plot twist no one saw coming, Jesus went to his home. “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a “sinner”.’” While He was there Jesus made the incredible declaration: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:7, 9).

Jesus treated as wanted, valued and loved a woman from the wrong ethnic group, who had had five husbands and was now living with a man she wasn’t married to. And He used her to bring her town to faith in Him. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39).

Those who end up in a relationship with God aren’t necessarily those who are outwardly impressive and have the greatest accomplishments. That’s how the world would write the story. Those who God chooses to be His own are those who confess their sin and trust in what Jesus has done. It’s a crazy and unexpected love story. It’s a story of God’s love for the undeserving. It’s a story of how much God loves us.

Church is a family not an event

Church is not an event we go to but a family we belong to. Church should not be seen as simply a place you go to when you want to receive some religious goods and services. That kind of view of church leads to an emphasis on the quality of the production but not on the quality of the relationships.

God created us in such a way that we need to be connected to others. We need to be part of a family. Many biological families are broken and full of conflict. But even in healthy biological families, there is a need for something more. People need to be in a family where Christ is the Head and the unity is not based on similar DNA. They need to be in the family of God where unity is based on faith in what Jesus has done.

“God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6). To the many lonely in the world the church extends a welcome and an invitation to be part of the family of God. This is to be a family different than any other, with a different kind of love and a different depth of commitment to one another.

When church is viewed as an event the emphasis is on the production, the presentation and “the show.” When church is seen as family the emphasis is on the people: How are they doing? Are they being built up? Are they being encouraged? When church is an event, if the product being offered doesn’t suit your tastes, you go shopping somewhere else. When church is family there is hopefully more patience and understanding.

“… be patient with everyone” (I Thessalonians 5:14). A family is a place where patience is sometimes tested and always needed. In a biological family you need to have patience with the little ones who are just learning to walk and talk. Patience is needed with the family member who is ill or disabled, or up in years and facing physical and mental challenges. It’s similar in God’s family. Some members might be just starting to walk with God. We need people to be patient with us as we stumble and fall at times. Some need patience as they wrestle with an illness of the soul. We are all disabled in some way. We all have patience-testing limitations.

When I’ve gone through trials and challenges in my life, I didn’t need an event to go to as much as I needed a church family to come alongside me and rejoice as I rejoice and mourn as I mourn (Romans 12:15). Sometimes I get tired of going to events. But I always need and I always give thanks that I get to be a part of the family of God.

Encouragement from surprising places

Sometimes God gives encouragement in surprising ways. Teachers can come from unexpected places.

The University of Oregon drama department might not be a place you would expect you could go to and find strength and encouragement in your faith in the Lord. But it happened to me.

It was a little over 20 years ago when I was living in Eugene. The U of O drama department put on a production of the play “Shadowlands.” The play tells the story of the Christian writer C. S. Lewis and his relationship with the woman who became his wife, Joy Davidman. When he was 57 Lewis married Davidman. Only four years after their marriage Joy died of cancer. The play tells the story of Lewis and Davidman falling in love, her battle with cancer, and Lewis’ battle with grief after her death. It is honest about his pain and sorrow, and also tells of how God helped him in dealing with his pain.

My sister, mother and brother had died the year before I saw the play. I could relate to Lewis’ struggle with sorrow. Some of his questions about why and about God’s purposes were questions I was wrestling with also. The play didn’t attempt to give simplistic answers to difficult questions. I was encouraged by the reminder that it is okay to hurt and mourn. I was encouraged too by the story of a man who God comforted.

God comforted me as I watched the play. After the play, as I was heading to my car, I found myself crying and thanking God for giving me the encouragement I needed that night. The U of O drama department maybe was just trying to put on a good play and didn’t have the goal of strengthening the faith of someone like me. But God used them in a powerful way.

During this new year comfort and encouragement may come to you from surprising places. God may use people you’re not expecting to teach you from His Word and point you to Jesus.

Jesus came from a surprising place. When Nathanael, who became a disciple of Christ, first heard what town Jesus came from he said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). He didn’t think the Messiah would come out of a place like Nazareth. God’s Holy Spirit continues to take up residence in and do significant work in surprising places. God has used people who maybe seemed kind of gruff to encourage me. He has used ones with little formal education, who never stood in front of a classroom, to teach me a lot about walking with Jesus. It’s good for us to be open to being surprised by the ways God might encourage us and the ones God might use to teach us in the new year.