Meditation 19: The Gospel in Laughter

You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” -- 1 Thessalonians 1:6. 

One of the things I love most about my wife is her stentorian and orotund laugh.  I cannot count the number of times that crowds in churches, movie theaters, or comedy shows have gotten to know me and my wife because of her inimitable laugh.  She has one of those turn-your-head-and-strain-your-eyes-to-find-out-where-that-thunderous-sound-is-coming-from kind of laughs -- one of those laughs that cannot be ignored, even if you try (and, believe me, I have). When she finds something funny, she throws her head back, braces her diaphragm with her hands, and lets loose a raucous torrent of booming guffaws, which she ultimately concludes with a dainty and tasteful tee-hee. 

For many years, she tried to control her intractable laugh, or at least make it more melodious and musical.  But she never succeeded!  So, today, she embraces her laugh and allows herself to communicate those spontaneous and raucous moments of joy without restraint.  And I have come to embrace her laugh, as well. I love it! Yes, it often embarrasses me. But I love how that cacophonous tsunami of joy bursts forth from deep within her soul and floods the ears and hearts of everyone around her.  Her laughter is so emphatic, and the joy it expresses is so pure and primal, that it compels people to turn their heads, looking for the answer to an unspoken question they all share -- namely, What’s so funny?

Today, I was struck by the realization that my wife’s laugh, and how people respond to it, is a beautiful illustration of how the Gospel is communicated most effectively in laughter and joy.  As a follower of Jesus, I am a herald of the best and happiest news in the world. I have every reason to be filled with joy and hope because I know that Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, has secured salvation and the forgiveness of sins for all mankind. Never will there be better news than that! Never will there be more reason to rejoice than to know that we all can be saved by God’s grace, if we place our faith in Jesus! 

I have the best and happiest news in the world; it follows that my life and demeanor should reflect that truth.  My mien should express the same kind of joy my wife communicates through her laughter. My countenance should be so loud and raucous with unrestrained joy that people are compelled to stop, turn their heads and ask, “What’s so funny?”  This is the Gospel in laughter.


Meditation 18: A Different Gospel Is No Gospel At All

If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. . . . We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you. (Gal. 1:10, 2:5).

It matters how I proclaim and live out the Gospel! What I say about the good news of Jesus (and how I live what I profess) either will lead non-believers away from Him, or draw them to Him; by the same token, my words and deeds either will undermine or will strengthen the faith of my fellow believers.

As a pastor, a husband, and a father, what I say about my faith in Jesus, and how I live that out, will affect those whom the Father has given me to shepherd. If I want the “truth of the [G]ospel” to remain with my wife, my children, and my church, I cannot allow myself to be misled by the man-made philosophies of this age, or by the perversions of the Gospel that are infiltrating and infecting the Church today. Like Jesus (and Paul), I must have the wisdom and boldness to speak out against the distortions of the Gospel that are leading God’s people astray. If I do not, I will be complicit with the enemy in his work of perverting the “truth of the [G]ospel” in the hearts of God’s Elect. It is an awesome spiritual responsibility to be a husband, or a father, or a pastor, or a teacher of God’s Word.

Peter learned this the hard way (as he did most of his lessons)! When he allowed himself to be influenced by the Judaizers and their false gospel (viz., that we are saved by placing our faith in Jesus and by obeying the law), he began to pull away from the Gentiles -- people God had been using him to reach with the Gospel. In Peter’s cowardice, disobedience, and hypocrisy, he even began leading other respected church leaders, like Barnabas, astray. (Gal. 2:11-13).  

How do I avoid the same mistake Peter made? Paul gives some great advice. First, he cautions me not to pay attention to any other teaching or re-framing of the Gospel that contradicts the already revealed Word of God.  Anything that conflicts with or is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as declared in Scripture, should be rejected and refuted, even if it is taught by a seemingly angelic being or a respected leader in the Church:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!  As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Gal. 1:6-9).

Second, I cannot please both God and man. That is why Paul writes that if he “were still trying to please men, [he] would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:10).  I must remember that my sole purpose and goal is to please Jesus, not my fellow man; I worship Jesus, not man; I am a slave of Christ, not of man.  

Peter’s character, faith, and ministry were compromised for two reasons: He cared more about pleasing man than he did pleasing Jesus; he feared man more than he did his Lord.  As a result, he allowed himself to give more credence to the doctrinal convictions of an influential religious sect within the Church than he did to what Jesus had taught him.

It is possible Peter compromised for reasons that seemed justifiable at the time. After all, he was an apostle to the Jews, not to the Gentiles. Perhaps he thought he was being shrewd in being careful not to offend the group of people to whom God had sent him as an apostle of Jesus Christ.  Of course, the irony and the tragedy in that decision was that he no longer was preaching the Gospel of Jesus to those people; he effectively had ceased to operate as an apostle of Jesus Christ and now was the apostle of a false gospel. 

The gravity of Peter’s offense cannot be over-stated: By his words and actions, he had led his followers into embracing another gospel, which really was “no gospel at all.” (Gal. 1:6).  Peter effectively was preaching that “righteousness could be gained through the law,” and that the Christ had died for nothing. (Gal. 2:21). It is no wonder, then, that Paul felt compelled to rebuke Peter in front of all the people he had led into error. (Gal. 2:11-14).  While it may have seemed harsh to Peter at the time, I believe Paul’s boldness in publicly challenging Peter’s heresy helped to ensure that the true Gospel “remained with [Peter]” and his ministry. (Gal. 2:5). I wonder if Paul had this incident in mind when he later counseled young Timothy to: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim. 4:16).


Meditation 17: A Fully Trained Disciple

In Luke 6:40, Jesus gives a clear, concise and practical metric for determining when someone has been fully trained and well-discipled.  He says, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.”  In other words, when I look at someone I have been discipling and can honestly say that the person’s life and character remind me a lot of Jesus, then I know the individual has been fully trained. The key, however, is to remember that I am not trying to make people look like me, but rather like Jesus in me. It can be easy to confuse wanting people to look like me with wanting their lives to reflect the life of Jesus in me.

Of course, no one is going to look exactly like Jesus on this side of eternity.  But when someone has grown to look more like Jesus than not, it probably is safe to say that s/he has been fully trained. This is not to say the person has nothing left to learn, but rather that s/he is ready to be launched in much the same way that Jesus sent out His disciples before He ascended into heaven.  Even though His disciples still had much to learn, Jesus considered them fully trained by that point.  Otherwise, He would not have commissioned them as His messengers!  He would send His Holy Spirit to continue instructing and counseling them. But their training was complete!

Are you fully trained? Can you point to anyone in your life who you personally have fully trained such that s/he looks like our Teacher, our Rabonni, Jesus?  You and I look the most like Jesus when we help others (by our words and by our example) to live as He did.


Meditation 16: On The Way!

Jesus told His disciples: "There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?  When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:2-4) (NLT).

There is room for each and every one of us in our Father's house.  He offers each of us a place, a purpose, and a position of eternal significance in His Kingdom! “Come one, come all,” He calls.

The only thing required of us is to do what all of us naturally and instinctively do when we travel somewhere: Follow the prepared way -- the predesigned route -- to our destination.  Today, most of us use MapQuest, a Garmin, or some other GPS device to guide us to our destination.  Jesus is the divine equivalent of the predesigned road systems that enable us to reach our travel destinations.  And He also is the spiritual analog of the GPS devices that guide us to those destinations! 

In John 14:6 (NLT), Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me."  In other words, Jesus is The Way to our final terminus.  He is the divine road that leads to Heaven -- there is no other path, there is no other way!  Pretty straightforward!  And His travel directions are equally elementary: “Follow Me,” He says. “Follow The Way!” (Cf. Matthew 9:9; John 14:6)

The roadway to heaven is a person, Jesus Christ, not a constellation of rules, regulations, and rituals.  Our directions simply are to place our faith in the Way, Jesus, and follow it/Him all the way to our final destination, our heavenly abode.  That God has designed such a simple path (and such simple directions) to His heavenly Kingdom is yet another testament to His unfathomable love for us.

I am on The Way! I am headed Home and looking for some more travel companions.  I know my Heavenly Father will have a radiant residence for me and for anyone else I bring along with me.  Anyone interested in joining me on this glorious journey? . . . Anyone?


Meditation 15: To Be or Not to Be?

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” (Luke 5:10).

Jesus had vision for His disciples.  As a pastor, I get really excited when the Lord gives me insight into how He is working in someone’s life, and who He is shaping that person to become. It is exhilarating to catch a glimpse of the wonderful things my Heavenly Father has in store for someone I love.  Today, however, when I read this passage of Scripture, I was reminded of the sobering and profound responsibility that comes with this tremendous privilege.

After His Heavenly Father gave Jesus this insight into what Simon would do, Jesus dedicated the rest of His earthly ministry to transitioning Simon from being a fisherman to becoming a Fisher of Men. He spent three years teaching and modeling for Simon what it meant to be a Fisher of Men, and releasing him to apply what he was learning. (Cf. Mark 6:7). If that is where Jesus had stopped, I think I (and most other pastors) would find discipling and shepherding challenging but manageable.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, however, record that Jesus also gave His life so that Simon could become a Fisher of Men, so that he could become Peter -- the rock upon which Jesus would build His church. (See Matthew 16:18).  Jesus gave all that He had, even pouring out His own life, so that Simon could become Peter, a Fisher of Men.

The implications for my own life and ministry are clear!  When the Lord grants me the privilege of receiving spiritual insight into who He has made (and is shaping) someone to be, that privilege is granted with an attendant responsibility: personal sacrifice. Like Jesus, more is required of me than teaching or modeling the things of the Kingdom.  I also must be willing to sacrifice all that I am in Christ so that someone else can become all that God has purposed for him or her to be in Christ! I must be willing not to be (to die) so that another might become! 

To be or not to be! That is indeed the fundamental question for anyone who serves as a shepherd for the Most High!


Meditation 14: God’s Word Will Never Fail

The stories of Zechariah and Mary teach us the importance of faith.  Zechariah doubted God’s word when Gabriel promised him that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and give birth to a son. They had prayed for years that God would give them a child. Yet, in that glorious moment when God told Zechariah that his prayers would be answered, Zechariah succumbed to doubt and asked Gabriel how he could be “sure” of God’s promise. (Luke 1:18).  One would think that if God’s word were not evidence enough, certainly the means by which it was delivered should have sufficed. How could Zechariah doubt a promise of God that was declared to him by an angelic messenger who stood “in the presence of God”? (Luke 1:19).  

We often think that if we had a supernatural encounter with the Lord, it would be easier for us to believe in Him or to believe a promise He has made to us.  Zechariah’s story, however, proves otherwise!  Scripture says that he was “righteous in the sight of God.” (Luke 1:9).  But even an angelic encounter was not enough to overcome Zechariah’s doubt -- a doubt that likely had grown like a weed in his soul each day his prayers had gone unanswered, and slowly had begun to strangle his faith.  

In response to Zechariah’s doubt, God silenced him, rendering him mute until John’s birth.  At first blush, this might seem like a pretty harsh form of discipline.  But God was doing more than disciplining Zechariah, He was protecting him.  Silencing Zechariah for the next nine months shielded him from further dishonoring God with his lips by continuing to question the reliability and veracity of His promise.  Even after Elizabeth conceived, it is possible that Zechariah continued to struggle with doubt, wondering if his aged wife could carry the child full-term. 

In short, Zechariah’s discipline was a reflection of God’s love and mercy! It also teaches us, however, that when God makes a promise to us, He wants us to speak and respond in faith, not in doubt, as Mary did.  When Gabriel visited Mary, she did not question if God would do what He had promised; she simply asked how He would. It was a question born of a reverent curiosity and a holy wonder (“How will this be[?]”), Luke 1:34). In many ways, God’s promise to Mary was harder to believe than His promise to Zechariah.  At least God’s promise to Zechariah had precedent in Scripture (e.g., Abraham and Sarah).  Never before, however, had a virgin conceived, much less given birth to the Son of God!

Mary’s response to God’s promise was three-fold. First, she believed it. Second, she received and embraced it -- she submitted her will to the Lord’s, aligning her heart to desire for herself what God desired for her.  And, finally, she worshipped the Lord and gave thanks to Him for His promise, an outward sign and overflow of her inward work of believing:

 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” . . .
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” (Luke 1:38, 46-48. See also John 6:29).

When Zechariah’s son was born, he followed Mary’s example. He believed and embraced God’s promise, and worshipped Him for it: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel . . ..” (Luke 1:64, 68).  The difference, however, is that Zechariah believed God after the fact, while Mary believed Him even before the promise was fulfilled. Her faith expressed itself in a “confidence” of what she hoped for, and in an “assurance” of what she did not see. (Hebrews 11:1).

May we respond as Mary did, when the Lord makes a promise to us: May we believe His word; may we receive and embrace His word; and may we thank and praise Him for His word. 

God fulfilled the seemingly impossible promises He made to Zechariah and Mary, and He will do the same for you and me. “For no word from God will ever fail.” (Luke 1:37). Between the declaration of the promise and its fulfillment, however, we must together do the hard work of believing and declaring that which is not as though it were!

Heavenly Father, I pray that you would encourage us, reminding us of the promises You have made to us and that not a single word You have spoken to us will ever fail.  May Your promises no longer overwhelm us with a bitter disappointment and cynicism that is fueled by doubt.  Instead, may Your promises fill us with a joyous anticipation, an unshakeable hope, and an unwavering assurance that is sustained by our faith in You. Amen.


Meditation 13: Does God Really Care?

Yesterday, I learned that a college classmate of mine, Melissa Ketunuti, was brutally murdered in her home. Melissa and I were not close friends in college, but our social circles sometimes overlapped. So, we spent time together on occasion, whether at college parties or during meals at our college cafeteria. She was a brilliant, beautiful, and incredibly warm-hearted person.
When I learned of her death, I was sitting in my parked minivan, feeding my three-month-old his late afternoon bottle, listening to my three-year old son playing in the back seat, and waiting to pick up my daughter at her bus stop. For a moment, as I sat in the car with two of my four beautiful children, the news of Melissa’s tragic death was inconceivable.  But as I imagined what her final moments on this earth may have been like, and her family’s tremendous grief, the reality that she indeed was gone pierced through my self-protective denial.  As I sat in my car, praying for her and her family, I returned to questions I have asked God countless times, in the midst of tragedy and suffering: Why? Why, Lord, do you allow death to stalk and claim the life of every living thing? Why, Heavenly Father, do you allow such rampant evil in this world? 

How could God, who is Himself the fullness of all that is holy and good, allow a beautiful person like Melissa to suffer such a brutal and senseless death?  Of course, as a minister, I knew all the theological answers to those questions. But those answers offered little comfort, because the questions I was asking were not academic, they were personal -- deeply personal. I was not a student catechizing his teacher on an esoteric subject. I was a child crying out to my Heavenly Father, demanding an explanation that would make sense of an incomprehensible tragedy. 

With all the violence, murder, and suffering in this world, it may seem rather puzzling that I do not bring these cries to our Creator more often. But I discerned something yesterday that I previously had not consciously recognized.  I realized that throughout my life, I have had an unspoken, subconscious pact with death and tragedy: I will pretend they do not exist and will live my life in willful denial of their existence, so long as they pretend I do not exist and their shadows do not darken my sunny skies. It is, admittedly, a selfish and naive artificial construct, a fabricated detente.  But it has been my way of insulating myself from the grief that I fear would consume me if I truly took the time to absorb and contemplate the tremendous agony and suffering so many people face every day.  Invariably, however, death and tragedy break our little “pact.”  And, as I was yesterday, I am once again compelled to grapple with the cruel and recondite contrast between the reality that I live in a broken and suffering world, and my faith in a good, perfect, just, and loving God who created it. 

I know God is aware of every single detail of every single event of every person’s life on this planet. Indeed, Jesus Himself said that our Heavenly Father even knows the number of hairs on our heads: “[T]he very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Luke 12:7) (NIV).  And, as the Apostle Paul wrote, God knows that His “creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together[.]” (Romans 8:22) (NASB).

And so, last night, I returned to asking God those vexing questions I previously managed to suppress, until death and tragedy found Melissa. 

. . . But God was silent!  And in that silence, as I reflected on how much I hate suffering, death and evil, I was filled with an intoxicating, self-righteous and prideful indignation at the thought that perhaps God does not hate those things as much as I do.  It was in that moment that God finally answered my questions.  But He answered with a few of His own: 

Niki, do you hate death so much that you would be willing to sacrifice your own life to end death for everyone else? Do you hate evil so much that you would be willing to suffer the guilt and consequence of every sin that has ever been (or ever will be) committed, in order to save humanity and redeem creation?  Would you be willing to suffer the agony of crucifixion?

With those gentle, convicting questions, the Lord gave me the personal answers I had sought in my prayers: He hates sin and death so much that He died on our behalf, taking upon Himself the guilt and consequence of every sin and evil that has ever been committed or ever will be, including Melissa’s tragic murder. (Cf. Isaiah 53:4-6; John 3:16; Romans 6:23; 2 Corinthians 5:21).  He hates murder far more than I ever will. And having been murdered Himself, He understands its pain, agony, and ugliness far more than I ever could. 

I mourn Melissa’s tragic death.  She will be missed greatly by all who knew her, and by every life she touched and blessed with her kindness, compassion, and warmth.  But I take comfort in the knowledge that God is good, that He remains sovereign over the affairs of Man, and that He grieves with all of us who knew her.  And I find hope in my faith that our Heavenly Father does indeed hear creation’s “groans,” including yours and mine, and is actively in the process of “making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5) (NASB).