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Archive for September, 2013

The Power of the Little

Mustard-Seed-Potential

It was such a little investment. My dad purchased $500 of bank stock on my behalf when I was eight years old. He added a little bit in at a time, but not a whole much. Yet over time, that little investment grew and grew. In times of booming business and gloomy recession that little investment was busy at work. Now, after 47 years, that $500 investment it has yielded over $100,000! My dad’s no financial genius, but he knows enough that just thinking or dreaming about the big does nothing. In order to get the big return later on, you must invest in the little now.  Focusing on the little releases the “huge.”

I find it stunning that when God walked on earth (Jesus) that He constantly drew our attention to the little things of life, whether they were: lilies of the field, mustard seeds, birds of the air, one lost lamb (amongst a huge flock of 100), a small coin, little children, a widow’s penny, or a small boy’s lunch (remember the 5 biscuits and 2 sardines?). Jesus taught, “Focus on the little things and huge things will happen.” Think about the little lilies and God will give you huge peace. Have little mustard seed faith and God will move huge mountains. Give God your little pittance and He will multiply your resources. Little things have huge impact in the hands of an awesome God.

The applications to this concept are … well, huge and infinite. But the hard thing about focusing on the little is that it goes against the grain of our human nature. We are fascinated by the big, the glitzy, the spectacular. We live in a “super-size” society, where bigger, better and more is the standard of expectation, desire and success. Even our expectations for church have to do with largeness; like buildings, budgets and bigshots (or nickels, numbers and noses)! Our preoccupation with the big often leaves us defeated, disappointed or disillusioned.

It takes a major renewal of the mind (the kind that only the Holy Spirit can do as we offer ourselves to Him in Whole Life Worship) to realize that only by focusing on the “little” can God’s awesome hugeness be brought about. It’s one of the primary principles of God’s Kingdom; the better we understand it, the more fruitful we will be as a follower of Jesus.

So those “little” decisions to turn from sinful choices reaps huge character in the future.

Those “little” times you spend in Bible reading and prayer reaps a huge, wise soul.

Those “little” acts of kindness reap huge impact in the lives of others.

Those “little” devotions of worship and obedience reap huge harvests of ministry.

Those “little” prayers for lost people reap huge treasure for the kingdom of God (and huge losses for the kingdom of darkness!)

So keep focusing on doing those little things well. Be persistent in maintaining the practice of the “little.” Value the Kingdom wealth packed into the little things of life. If we are faithful with the little, God will unleash the hugeness in the little that is often invisible to our human eyes … but what the Bible tells us is definitely there!

What shall we say the kingdom of God is like… ? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade. (Mark 4:30-32)

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The Power of the Little

Mustard-Seed-Potential

It was such a little investment. My dad purchased $500 of bank stock on my behalf when I was eight years old. He added a little bit in at a time, but not a whole much. Yet over time, that little investment grew and grew. In times of booming business and gloomy recession that little investment was busy at work. Now, after 47 years, that $500 investment it has yielded over $100,000! My dad’s no financial genius, but he knows enough that just thinking or dreaming about the big does nothing. In order to get the big return later on, you must invest in the little now.  Focusing on the little releases the “huge.”

I find it stunning that when God walked on earth (Jesus) that He constantly drew our attention to the little things of life, whether they were: lilies of the field, mustard seeds, birds of the air, one lost lamb (amongst a huge flock of 100), a small coin, little children, a widow’s penny, or a small boy’s lunch (remember the 5 biscuits and 2 sardines?). Jesus taught, “Focus on the little things and huge things will happen.” Think about the little lilies and God will give you huge peace. Have little mustard seed faith and God will move huge mountains. Give God your little pittance and He will multiply your resources. Little things have huge impact in the hands of an awesome God.

The applications to this concept are … well, huge and infinite. But the hard thing about focusing on the little is that it goes against the grain of our human nature. We are fascinated by the big, the glitzy, the spectacular. We live in a “super-size” society, where bigger, better and more is the standard of expectation, desire and success. Even our expectations for church have to do with largeness; like buildings, budgets and bigshots (or nickels, numbers and noses)! Our preoccupation with the big often leaves us defeated, disappointed or disillusioned.

It takes a major renewal of the mind (the kind that only the Holy Spirit can do as we offer ourselves to Him in Whole Life Worship) to realize that only by focusing on the “little” can God’s awesome hugeness be brought about. It’s one of the primary principles of God’s Kingdom; the better we understand it, the more fruitful we will be as a follower of Jesus.

So those “little” decisions to turn from sinful choices reaps huge character in the future.

Those “little” times you spend in Bible reading and prayer reaps a huge, wise soul.

Those “little” acts of kindness reap huge impact in the lives of others.

Those “little” devotions of worship and obedience reap huge harvests of ministry.

Those “little” prayers for lost people reap huge treasure for the kingdom of God (and huge losses for the kingdom of darkness!)

So keep focusing on doing those little things well. Be persistent in maintaining the practice of the “little.” Value the Kingdom wealth packed into the little things of life. If we are faithful with the little, God will unleash the hugeness in the little that is often invisible to our human eyes … but what the Bible tells us is definitely there!

What shall we say the kingdom of God is like… ? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade. (Mark 4:30-32)

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Beginning to Notice

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Last week when I spoke at Lifeline, I mentioned the concept of “noticing” as being a new principle that has greatly facilitated the process of transformation in my life over the past year. During the Q&A time, someone asked me, “Can you explain ‘noticing’?”

Good question.

It’s kind of a new word in my vocabulary. I notice that I use the word “notice” a lot when talking about spiritual formation (pun intended). The first time I heard “noticing” as a concept was from my colleague and friend, Kathleen Acker. She used it in a way that was proactive. Usually, noticing is reactive; that it’s something that we reflexively do when something else is trying to get our attention. But her use of noticing was more of a spiritual practice, involving a movement toward a frame of mind that is observant.

I heard the word more from the readings and lectures of Ruth Haley Barton. Here she connected “noticing” as a way of humble reflection. This goes against the grain of our human nature where we judge or react to what we see or experience. We see a person yell at a person and we judge them as being an “angry person.” Or, closer to home, we yell at someone and we immediately judge them or ourselves or both. “Noticing” involves taking a few steps back and a few steps down (off the Judgment seat) and asking God the question, “What is really going on here?”

Noticing is a natural by-product of a well-examined life. The Examen is a spiritual practice where we evaluate the events, thoughts and emotions of the day past in the Presence of God and ask, “What is really going on here?” (Ps 4:4, 139:23-24). The Examen is not a way to beat ourselves up over the sins and mistakes we made. Nothing could be further from the truth. While not denying the fact of our sin and shortcomings (and the need to make restitution, when required), the Examen gives us the opportunities to ask God questions, like: “What underlying things influenced that sin?” or “What is behind the sense of shame/desolation that I felt when that happened?”

As well, the Examen gives us opportunity to notice the ways that God “showed up” during our day. There are so many things that God does for us that go unnoticed. The Examen gives us an opportunity to “turn those blessings into praise.” We also notice those things that lift up our soul, those “spiritual endorphins” (the ancients called these “consolations”). As we ask God to show us what is behind our consolations, we begin to see patterns in our lives – some of which are good, as well as some of which point to our dark side or false self.

But one does not have to wait until the Examen at day’s end to utilize the practice of noticing. As worshipers in the everyday ordinary, every moment – in a split second – can be noticed and pondered upon. In one of my early blogs, “The Attitude of Wonderment” (Jan 16 and May 7, 2013), I discussed the power of noticing the aspects of God’s creation that we normally take for granted. Noticing the small things of God are extremely powerful, renewing and transforming.

As well, noticing helps when my soul gets “disturbed.” For instance, there have been times when someone said something caustic to me and my normal reaction would be: to get defensive, prove myself right, or go “sideways” with that person (kind of a “tit for tat” stance). But the practice of noticing has helped me to step back, to not judge that person (or myself), but to simply notice and to ask the question before God, “Why are you so disturbed, O my soul?” (Ps 42:5, 11).

In that quick moment of time, the Spirit will give me what I need: to regain my balance (He is the gyroscope of my soul), to regroup by taking a deep breath (both physically and spiritually), to renew my thinking, and to respond appropriately. Noticing becomes my invitation for God to enter into that moment and transform me – albeit in the microcosmic instant of an everyday ordinary event.

For this reason, Whole Life Worshipers should become experts at “noticing.” Rather than judging and reacting to bad situations, we step back and allow God to enter both our situations and our souls. Rather than blasting through our days like automatons, we proactively look for the new movements and new mercies of God; discovering wonderful and empowering graces that would have otherwise been lost to our perceptions.

And as we do, others will “notice” how different we’ve become.

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Early in Jesus’ ministry, a leper approached him and asked him to “make him clean” (Mark 1:40-45). Moved to compassion, Jesus touched the leper (which was an amazing move of grace – as it also made Jesus ceremonially “unclean”) and healed him of leprosy. But Jesus wasn’t done yet. He gave the man specific instructions that would make him socially healed and create new opportunities for him. However, the man disregarded Jesus. Instead he bragged about what Jesus did for him, thinking that it would help Jesus’ cause. But it didn’t. As the gospel writer observes, Jesus was hindered to enter into towns without being mobbed. This man’s selfish disobedience not only short-circuited his transformation, it also hindered the work of the Kingdom.

The lesson to this story is about “deliverance” and “transformation.” The leper just wanted deliverance; he wanted to be healed of his physical disease. But Jesus’ goal was transformation, to put the man onto the path of healthiness, fruitfulness and purpose in the Kingdom of God.

Last week, I was asked to share my testimony to our church’s recovery ministry (called “Lifeline”). Part of my testimony had to do with God delivering me from a powerful addictive behavior. God demonstrated His power and grace in helping me overcome the “fire” of this addiction. I could not have done it in my own power – believe me, I tried.

The “deliverance” was awesome, as God personally manifested for me a power that I knew did not come from me. It serves as a marker (what the Bible calls an “Ebenezer,” 1 Sam 7:12) that God revealed Himself in a new way for me. God is truly the Deliverer; He answers when we call His name (Ps 3:4).

But deliverance was just half the battle. I shared that I still needed to live out my life from that point and it was extremely tempting to go back to the addiction. Fortunately for me, God wanted more for me than a one-time deliverance. He desired transformation. So utilizing the same principles that helped me to be delivered from the power of sin, God began to transform me. They include: being totally honest with God, developing a lifestyle of surrendering myself to Him, and finding supportive and accountable community.

This did two things for me. First, I walked in on-going victory over the power of that besetting sin. Second, I walked in a quality of life that brought fruitfulness, purpose, and freedom in other areas of life. Many of the principles of Whole Life Worship were what I lived out, and continue to live out, in that process of transformation.

Stories of deliverance are immediate, amazing and miraculous. Stories of transformation are long, tedious and hard. But for me, transformation is no less amazing nor less miraculous.

Too often, people just want deliverance without the pain of transformation. As a result, they sell both themselves and God short. And at first glance, it seems appealing. Like the leper, we want the miracle and to live the way we want to live. We get some holy “zapping” and then we go off on our merry way. That is human nature. Think of the thousands of people who personally experienced the power of Christ (healings, exorcisms, raised from the dead, multiplying fishes and loaves) and how many were with Jesus after the crucifixion and resurrection (only 120!) The same is true for Christians in today’s culture. So many have a testimony of God’s miracles, but so few living that miracle in a way that transforms them and the world around them.

But transformation is the greatest wonder of all! It opens us up to a new way of living. It is true freedom. It is experiencing true love and loving others truly. It is living a “righteous” life (both in the Biblical … and the 70’s sense of the word) that is fueled by grace and motivated by love. Yes, it requires sacrifice, discipline, and a constant dying to my ways of doing things. Yes, it means learning to look at life from a different perspective and that shift is often humbling – even humiliating. But it also means walking with Jesus; and that, my friends, is worth the price of admission (which He paid, by the way).

My hope and prayer, both for those in Lifeline and those in Whole Life Worship, is that we would see “deliverance” as a stepping stone to transformation; not an end-point to our spiritual journey. It is great to be lifted out of the miry pit (Psalm 40:1), but it is awesome to walk down His path of transformation to glory (2 Cor 3:18).

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The FEAR that ‘Fear’ Fears

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I ran into my friend Felix at Starbuck’s today and he told me how much he enjoyed Friday’s blog (“Fear and the Myth of Friday the 13th”). He shared with me how one of his major fears is disappointing other people’s expectations (don’t we all have that one?) He said that that fear often influences him in making wrong and bad decisions. But the one simple truth that put that this fear into place came when he read that “God is the Ultimate Fear that makes all other fears tremble.” He summarized it in a great phrase that was too good to pass up:

“God is The FEAR that ‘Fear’ fears.”

Good one, Felix!

This concept immediately lifted his heart and put things into perspective. It was probably the same feeling that Joshua had when Yahweh spoke to him after Moses died – “Fear not; be strong and courageous.” Or when Jesus told his disciples on the boat that was about to capsize in the furious storm, “Don’t be afraid!” and then stilled the storm with a word.

Awe-filled peace.

We are introduced to this concept in Gen 31 where God is called “The FEAR of Isaac.” Oddly enough, in this passage Isaac is not the one who uses this name of God – it is his son, Jacob. But it shows that Isaac must have taught it to Jacob; as dysfunctional as their relationship was. On a side note, this should give hope to us parents who feel like we’ve failed our children. As the writer of Proverbs states, if we train a child in the way they should go, they will eventually remember it when they get older (Prov 22:6).

This came to Jacob at a crucial time. He was scared to death (31:31) because his father-in-law, a pretty ruthless guy named “Laban,” overtook him after Jacob stole away in the night with Laban’s two daughters, his grandchildren, and a pretty sizeable flock of animals that were taken by deception.

But his father’s God intervened. The Fear of Isaac dispelled Jacob’s fear of Laban’s retribution by speaking to Laban in a dream (31:24). Laban’s attitude was changed and they were able to talk about the situation and resolve it in peace. Jacob recognized this grace and realized that his father’s Fear was greater than his fear (31:42).

The Bible affirms God as this unique FEAR. In Proverbs 1:7, Solomon writes, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of all wisdom.” Jesus teaches, “Do not fear those who can kill the body. But fear the One who can destroy the body and the soul in Hades” (Matt 10:28). And John writes, “God is love … Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:8, 18). The intention of lesser fears is to manipulate and deceive us into making poor decisions, to deny God, and to settle for something much smaller than the Kingdom life. But the intention of the ultimate FEAR is wisdom, life, and love.

Jacob realized this and chose the greatest FEAR over lesser fears. This was a huge paradigm shift and it was a concept he would have to re-learn over and over again (just fast forward to Gen 32, 42, and 46 – God graciously had to show up again to help him with this issue; good news for us who have a hard time letting go of our lesser fears). And for people like Felix and me – and you, dear Reader – we do well to follow the Fear of Isaac; whom we know is our precious Lord Jesus.

Sometimes we are locked into thinking that Jesus is only the meek and mild one who is full of love and tenderness to bruised reeds and wicks. That is true. BUT he is also the One who wields the sword of justice, riding on the White Horse (called “Faithful and True”), whose robe is dipped in blood and has His title KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS etched on his thigh (Rev 19:11-16). And we need to hold onto that image, as well.

Yes, this is the FEAR that makes all other ‘fears’ tremble and wet their pants (sorry, but I believe they do that when they see Him). He is the FEAR that ‘Fear’ fears.

And He is the One who stays in our corner when we choose to live in His.

So, Whole Life Worshipers, let us let the FEAR of Isaac dispel our fears, whether they are great or small. Whether it is the fear of not pleasing others or the fear of suffering from cancer. Whether it is the fear of not getting a promotion or a fear of losing a loved one. Whether it is a fear of being misunderstood or a fear of losing everything, let us live in the love of the Greatest FEAR of all. For if God is for me, who can be against me?

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I’m not superstitious but a lot of people are. And some of those people are Christians. Today is Friday the 13th (of September). To me, it’s just another day of the week to glorify the Lord. For others it’s a day of extra precaution, avoidance or even fear.

Studies have shown that there are visible affects to Friday the 13th. For example, Americans spend $800-900 million less on Friday the 13th because people who are scared don’t leave their homes or don’t take airplane flights on this day. In some countries, crime actually goes down on Friday the 13th because, apparently, crooks are pretty superstitious.

The interesting thing about Friday the 13th is that it has no historical origin. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that there was a phrase called “Friday the 13th.” Most believe that it was an amalgam of two “bad luck” omens based on hyper-religiosity: Friday is unlucky because Jesus was crucified on that day (which I find ironic and misplaced because what Jesus did on Good Friday is the best thing that could ever happen for the human race). “13” is unlucky because it is one more than 12, a number that signifies completeness. Religious folks point to the Twelve Apostles as proof of the divine completeness of the number 12. But it doesn’t seem like it was a very lucky number, as the 12th Apostle was Judas – who killed himself. Then in Acts 1, the Eleven appointed Matthias (the 13th Apostle!) to take his spot. I guess there is a case for Matthias taking the #12 slot. But what do you do about the “Apostle” Paul (the 14th Apostle, or the #13 slot!)?

Any way you slice it, it doesn’t seem that Friday the 13th has a whole lot of historical strength to make it as bad as a day that people believe it to be. But try to talk superstitious people out of believing in it! They’ll give you 100 reasons why we all should beware of it.

The underlying attitude (and where I am going with this) is fear. Superstitious people are afraid. They’re afraid something might happen to them because of some bad karma in the air. But they aren’t the only ones dealing with fear. I am afraid of some things. I’m fearful for my kids and grandkids. I’m afraid of having to endure a painful disease or condition. Sometimes I’m afraid to walk down a dark street at night.

Truth is, we are all afraid of something. We all have fears. And, whether we like it or not, whatever we fear has a certain grip and control over our hearts and lives. So whether our fears are superstitious or whether they are perfectly logical, we’re all in the same boat – we all have fear, and this fear always paralyzes us.

The good news is that the Ultimate Fear – that which causes all other fears to tremble – is God. And God so loves you and me. Because of that, we don’t have to be afraid. As 1 John 4:18 says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” And God loves us perfectly!

This doesn’t mean Christians live without fear. God does not zap us with “instant courage.” Rather, we learn to face our fears with the presence of God by our side. Sometimes God’s presence gives us peace in the midst of facing our fears. Sometimes, though, we still “feel” the fear as we step into it, but then we see the power of God dispel it as we take steps of faith into the darkness. This is how God gives us a spirit of love, power and a sound mind which overcomes the spirit of fear and timidity (2 Tim 1:7).

So to the fearfully superstitious and to the logically fearful, I say let’s be whole life worshipers and walk with God through our fears. For the One called the “Fear of Isaac” (Gen 31:42) is with us and the Darkest of darkness trembles at His Name and at the sound of His voice.

Friday the 13th is not a day to be afraid of, but to “live into” – with the Presence of Christ, who makes every day a Good day.

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Gift From Yahweh

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Today is my son’s (Jonathan) 21st birthday. Today is a reminder of God’s special gift to Letty and me. Let me tell you the story behind this:

It was about 24 years ago that Letty and I considered having a third child. We had been blessed with two boys, Tim and Daniel. We thought that was “it” for us. We loved these two boys with all our heart. It was hard to imagine having a third child and how we could love that child in the same way as we loved the other two. Plus, having two children made us evenly matched (one kid per parent). Having three kiddos would give the power advantage to the children (think of a 3 on 2 fast-break, but worse).

But the Lord worked on our hearts and we knew that we should try for number 3. And so we did. Letty got pregnant and we were all excited about the new baby. However, the baby miscarried on the 8th week. It was heart-breaking and confusing for us. It felt like a death, but there was no body and no closure. Some well-meaning people in the church tried to comfort us with statements like, “Oh, you’ll get another chance” and “Well, there must have been a good reason why that baby wasn’t born.” But, as you can imagine, it just made it worse. Most people don’t know how to handle it when someone else goes through a miscarriage.

After grieving, we tried again. And Letty got pregnant again. At the 20th week, Letty felt something peculiar. She got checked and we discovered that the baby died in the womb. The worst part was that they would have to “extract” our dead child through a procedure that is only done at abortion clinics. So, sadly Letty had to go to a Planned Parenthood clinic in LA and had the procedure done. Again, there was no body and no closure, making it difficult to mourn. The only redemption was that Letty got to share with other women at the abortion clinic that she wasn’t there to get rid of her baby. Rather, she wanted her (the baby was a girl), but the baby had died in the womb. They were visibly moved by her story.

We were a wreck after that. The only things that kept us going were the demands of life and raising our two boys. Then, I remember receiving a phone call in January 1992 while at a Worship Conference in Colorado. Letty (with the boys help) announced that she was pregnant! And for the next 8 months we held our breaths.

As it got closer to the baby’s due date we had to decide on names. For the boy’s name we thought about all the Biblical characters. “Jonathan” stood out to us. We thought about how noble and truthful Jonathan was, and what a great, humble friend he was to David. I looked up the definition of Jonathan. In the Hebrew, it means “gift from Yahweh.”

That was perfect! After losing two children to death, Jonathan’s birth would truly be a gift. We did not take the opportunity to “give life” for granted. Although Jon was born a month premature, he was healthy and very much alive! Praise Yahweh for His gift!

Well, that gift is still giving blessing to us to this day. Jon is not only a healthy young adult, but one who lives fervently for Jesus. He’s very involved with our Youth Ministry, serving as a leader for High School Students. He is a Presidential Scholar at Cal State San Bernardino (and he’s on the Dean’s List every quarter). And he is a passionate worship leader at our church. He not only leads our HS Worship Team, but he also is an emerging worship leader for our church (the “Big” Church). And you know his daddy is really proud of that!

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(Pastor Scott Higa and Jon – giving some love to the USC Trojans)

But I share Jon’s story not just to brag about Jon, as a reminder of a needed habit Whole Life Worshipers must exercise – that of “remembering God’s goodness.” We tend to receive the blessings of God with initial joy, but then we so quickly move on to the next thing, the next need, the next prayer request, or the next miracle. Israel had the same problem – they kept forgetting what God had done because they were too concerned about what they needed God to do, now.

Yet remembering the gifts of God in the past is where we base our faith in the present. So it is important to remember his gifts, his “Jonathans.” They move us in the dynamic of Whole Life Worship.

When was the last time you stepped back and reflected on what God has done for you?

What are the “Jonathan” gifts God has given you in the past?

What did you learn about God through these gifts?

I will remember Your deeds, O LORD, and I will meditate on all Your works (Psalm 77:12)

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