Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Genesis 49 - We are lions

We're coming to the end of Genesis with the last chapter unfolding tomorrow. Before we leave this book, I'd like to take one final look at Judah.

In chapter 38, Judah's sins and horrible decisions paint a clear contrast to the holy direction Joseph takes with his life. In chapter 43, Judah does the opposite of chapter 38 as he steps up and takes responsibility as his brothers cower in fear at the requests a strange Egyptian ruler, Joseph, is making on their family. It is a beautiful redemption story, but it is not complete.

In this chapter, 49, Israel blesses his sons. Some have brutal futures ahead of them because of their actions, Joseph has goodness awaiting him. And then there is Judah. What to do with Judah? Here is what Israel says:

"Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons will bow down to you.

You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.

He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes.

His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.

There is deep beauty in those verses but this is supposed to be 97 seconds so I will tell you one thing I think about the life of Judah:

Judah did not transform into another man, he became the man God always made him to be.

I used to those two things were the same, but they're not. Trying to become someone else is impossible and unfortunately what I used to do all the time. I thought that I was broken beyond repair and a different me was needed. If I could only figure out a way to be just like person B or person C, things would be fine. But that's not the way.

When I start becoming the person God made me to be, I get to be me. I get to find out who that is and what that means and learn to be content with the unique things that have always been true, though long hidden by my sin. I get to enjoy the thumbprint of my maker that has long lain dormant instead of trying to be someone else. There is tremendous freedom in that.

Judah didn't become a lion when he did the right thing in chapter 43. I think Israel calls him a lion's cub because that's what he always was. He might not have acted like that in chapter 38, but I think by this chapter, with God at the helm of Judah's life, Israel can't wait to exclaim, "who dares to rouse him?"

Monday, July 28, 2008

Genesis 48 - The soft X

In chapter 48 of Genesis, one of the biggest lessons is that God makes decisions in ways we don't. This is reflected by the blessing Israel gives Joseph's youngest son. He should have placed his hand on Manasseh's head instead of placing it on Ephraim's head. But he didn't. He formed an X with his arms, doing the exact opposite of what Joseph and society expected.

That lesson is powerful and I think lots of people have written lots of great things explaining it. But that wasn't what stopped me in this chapter. What I took away was Israel's response when Joseph tried to fix the situation and make sure the right child got the first blessing. This is what Israel said in verse 19:

"I know, my son, I know."

I think that is so tender. I think that is such a soft thing to say to someone confused at what is happening. And I think it is what God must think when I try to uncross His hands in certain situations.

When I try to rush my book getting published or force a friendship or do a million different things my way and He has something else planned, He doesn't yell at me. He doesn't shake His head in disappointment. Not at all. He knows what I want. He knows what I think is important. He understands my deepest desire. Though like Israel, He refuses to do things my way, He doesn't act surprised at what I think should happen.

He says, "I know, my son, I know."

Sometimes that is all I get to hear. Sometimes those are the only words He unfolds in the midst of his soft X that is unmovable.

My prayer is that I'll learn to let that be enough. That I will trust that His way is better than my way, even when or perhaps especially when, it is different than my own.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Chapter 47 - The long lean

A few days ago I wrote about the way Joseph showed such a wise understanding of cause and effect in this chapter. In Genesis 47 he laid out an interesting model of what it means to plan for and experience consequences. The clearest example being that he didn't just give the grain away to the people that needed it. He allowed them to learn the consequence of not planning during seven years of fruitfulness by charging them for their grain during the famine. But that's not what I want to talk about.

I'd like to highlight a handful of words at the very end of the chapter.

The scene is pretty simple. We're told, "When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph." Israel is in the process of dying and calls his most trustworthy son forward to give him his last request. This doesn't necessarily feel like a death bed moment, but you definitely get the sense that Israel's body is making peace with the years that have piled up one after another like cars on the highway.

That reality is clearest with the sentence that ends the chapter, "And Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff."

It's possible that it is meant to serve as simply a descriptive way to end the scene. But to me, there is more there. To me, it serves as a perfect example of when we should worship. Israel may not have been moments from death, but he was tired. For years he had mourned the supposed death of his son which is exhausting. For months he had feared losing Benjamin as the brothers went back and forth seeking grain from Egypt and a ruler they did not recognize. For days if not weeks, he had marched his family to Egypt, uprooting his life at a time when most of us would expect to be retired.

He is old.
He is feeble.
He is worshipping.

That is beautiful. In the midst of his tiredness. In the midst of his slow crawl toward the end of his chapter, he reserves the strength to do what matters most. He worshiped. Even "as he leaned on the top of his staff." Even as he discussed where he wanted to be buried. Even while he planned to die, he worshipped.

I want to live that sentence. I want to take it and make it mine. I want it to read, "And Jon worshipped as he wrote a blog. And Jon worshipped as he filled out his time sheet at work. And Jon worshipped as everything fell apart."

That is my new prayer. That is my new thought and I hope it's one that speaks to you too.

We will all have moments where we need to lean on our staffs. I pray that you'll remember:

"And Walt worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff."
"And Jennifer worshiped as she leaned on the top of her staff."
"And Amy worshiped as she leaned on the top of her staff."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Chapter 46 - Go before you know

In Genesis 45, Joseph asked his long lost father to come to move to Egypt. This is no easy feat given the size of Jacob’s family. Plus he owned a ton of livestock and moving goats by foot has to be an unpleasant experience. In chapter 46: 1-4 it says:

“So Israel (Jacob) set out with all that was his and when he reached Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.

And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” “

Here I am,” he replied.

“I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again.”

Note the progression of events here. Jacob sets out with all his goats in verse 1 and then eventually in verse 4 God says "I will go down with Egypt with you.” Not the other way around. If I were Jacob I would have thought “That’s great to hear God because I’ve kind of already left.”

Jacob had to move his entire family, everything he had ever known to set out for a strange land with only his faith in his relationship with God to back him up. No detailed plans, no vision, no promise of success.

Why doesn’t God always give us an instructional sheet for the journey ahead? I think it’s because He’s brilliant and knows that if I had a sheet, that sheet would eventually become my god. When times got tough, I wouldn’t cry out to the one true God in confusion, I would look at my sheet and trust in it for clarity. I’d make an idol out of His instruction and put my faith in the piece of paper instead of Him.

I don’t know if you have a big goat move ahead of you, but if you do, don’t think that God isn’t with you just because He hasn’t delivered clear directions. His silence might be the greatest sign that He wants you take the first step long before He’ll tell you the next one after that.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Genesis 45 - Reveal

In chapter 45 of Genesis the moment we have all been waiting for arrives, Joseph reveals to his brother's his true identity. It is exciting. It is happy. It is tearful.

But the thing I noticed while reading it was not the excitement so much as the overall patience Joseph showed. In this relatively short chapter he mentions his father four times. It is clear that a dam of emotion has burst and he is overwhelmed with the thought of seeing his father. So my question for you is this:

"Why didn't Joseph go see his father when he was put in charge of Egypt?"

Surely, as important as he was, he could have left for a few days/weeks to go see his father? Surely he had the power and the money and the pull? I mean when Pharaoh finds out about his brothers he goes crazy trying to treat them to the finest things that Egypt has to offer. Surely if Joseph told him about his father, Pharaoh would have made the reunion possible a lot sooner. Why didn't Joseph go to his father years earlier?

I don't think he did because he was committed to God's plan. He was dedicated to seeing it through to the end. He knew the completion of everything was not that his dire need of seeing his father again was met. He knew that God had him in place to save lives and save Egypt.

So even when it became possible to go see his father he knew that was not God's plan and stayed put.

It's an exciting chapter but the patience is what stopped me cold.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Genesis 44 - Forget

Why did Joseph go through all the trouble of tricking his brothers in Egypt? Why place the silver cup in their sack and force them to leave Judah as hostage? Why all the games?

I admit, it adds to the drama. The tension is certainly higher with him making his brothers jump through hoops. We all collectively move to the edge of our seats when he unfolds his plan, but what was the point?

I think he wanted to see that his brothers were different. He didn't want to enable them and continue the cycle of generational sin he had broken only a few chapters earlier. He wanted to make sure his brothers had changed in action not just word.

Think again, about the family Joseph was from. What sort of consequences did Isaac place on Joseph's father Jacob when he stole Esau's birthright? What sort of consequences did Jacob in turn put on Judah when he tried to shirk the responsibility of the pregnant prostitute? What sort of consequences did Judah put on his own two sons for their evils that were so severe God killed them? None. You get the sense reading these chapters that this is a family that does not know the cause and effect of their actions.

But Joseph was different. He didn't scream "no" when Potiphar's wife tried to seduce him. He laid out his clear understanding of the entire situation to her, including the consequences. He spent years in jail as a product of false consequences. He interpreted the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker, with severely different consequences. And even more visible, he explained Pharoah's dream and did the opposite of what most men would have done. He stored food for seven years in preparation for the seven famine years. In chapter 47 we see that when people ran out of money to buy food, Joseph had them pay with their livestock and eventually their land. He didn't open the storehouses and just give the food to anyone that asked for free. He practiced cause and effect, action and consequence throughout his entire life.

To forgive his brothers instantly would have been the opposite of everything God had taught Joseph in his last twenty years. So when he saw the same brothers that had sold him into slavery, one has to wonder if he feared for Benjamin. Certainly he wanted to see the younger brother he had never met, but is it possible he feared they would do the same thing they did to Joseph to him someday? To sell the brothers grain without investigating would have been giving fuel to slave traders.

So he asked questions. He investigated, he made sure that his forgiveness would not harm the brothers. Which is a weird concept, but I think an important one to think about.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Genesis 43 - The long return

In chapter 43, the tension with Joseph is building. His plan to study and forgive his brothers is unfolding and Benjamin arrives, breaking Joseph down into a private moment of weeping. But what's interesting to me happens before Benjamin shows up in Egypt.

Listen to the speech that Judah, the man that impregnated a prostitute and condemned her initially, says to his father in verses 8-9:

Then Judah said to Israel his father, "Send the boy along with me and we will go at once, so that we and you and our children may live and not die. I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life."

That makes a nice paragraph but it is beautiful when you dissect it and see the words a man once known for shirking family responsibilities actually uses:

Send the boy along with me

We will go

I myself guarantee his safety

You can hold me personally responsible

If I do not bring him back

I will bear the blame before you all my life.

Judah, is that you? Can that be? Could that paragraph be more jam packed with words indicating a man of serious responsibility is about to step up to a dangerous situation?

I love it. I love that the Bible is full of mess ups that come back. Abject failures of human beings that through God's grace are pulled from the pit and do some tremendous things.

We are created to change. I don’t care if you're a bad dad, a fired employee, a divorced parent that feels like life is an island right now. Within you beats the song of change. It may be quiet right now. You might feel like it will never sing again, but just like Abraham, just like Judah, we are all capable of change in the eyes of the Lord.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Genesis 42 - Run

I used to think that if I put enough time between me and something I had done wrong in the past, everything would be OK. Time would heal the wound, enough other memories would cover up the bad one I didn't want to deal with and everything would work itself out. I wonder if Joseph's brothers thought that too.

That was what struck me the most about chapter 42 of Genesis. There is a palpable sense of dread in the air. The sin of the brothers travels with them like a phantom, haunting their words and their actions. Even though they tried to escape it, it is so close to the surface in so many ways:

Jacob was living in fear - verse 4
But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph's brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him.

The brothers can't tell their story without Joseph - verse 13
"Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more."

The brothers sense punishment - verse 21
They said to one another, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother.

They remember the agonizing details of their decision - verse 21
"We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us."

The brothers are divided - verse 22
Reuben replied, "Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen!"

Joseph is not a thing that happened, he is an intimate part of their past - verse 22
"Now we must give an accounting for his blood."

Everything comes back to that moment - verse 28
Their hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, "What is this that God has done to us?"

Jacob keeps coming back to that moment - verse 36
"You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!"

The whole story revolves around the brothers' decision to sell Joseph into slavery. Although maybe they just needed more time to forget what they had done. Perhaps that was the problem. But it had been more than 20 years. They had emotionally and spiritually run for more than two decades. Do you think Reuben saw the young Joseph in his own sons? Do you think the brother's did not notice how that event ate at their father Jacob? Do you think they had a moment of peace in the last 20 years?

I doubt it. And maybe peace is what you need to. Maybe you need to stop running from that thing or that person. You might not have a younger brother to plead with. You might not have a situation that can be healed fully this side of heaven. But you do have a Father that cares, a God that is invested in your heart and a Lord that doesn't want to see you run for 20 years.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chapter 41 - The Cycle

A few weeks ago, my counselor Chuck asked my men's group a simple question:

"How did Joseph break the dysfunction that had hurt his family for generations?"

I honestly had never thought about that. I believed that from Abraham down to Joseph was a long line of pure holiness, but I was wrong.

Abraham lied and prostituted his wife. Not once, but twice. He doubted God's ability to provide a child so severely that he started another family with his maidservant Hagar. Isaac repeated the same mistake by whoring out his wife too. He also created a household where he had a favorite son and his wife had a different favorite son. He was not renamed by God. My friend Tim pointed that out. His father Abraham received a new name. His son Jacob did too, but not Isaac. Jacob and Esau were a mess, with Jacob stealing Esau's birthright and then using his family as a buffer against his brother's vengeance. Jacob then proceeds to repeat his father's mistake by creating a favorite son, Joseph.

One can only wonder what would have happened to Joseph if he had stayed in that environment. Have you ever met someone that is coddled and doted on and protected from every problem in the world? Have you ever met a spoiled child you admired? It is hard to believe that the third generation dysfunction of Isaac could have raised a new generation of holiness in Joseph. So what happened? How did Joseph turn out into an awe-inspiring man of God in charge of Egypt?

He suffered. He was sold into slavery. He spent years in a dungeon. He hit his bottom and found God waiting to lift him up. He was refined by the trials and tribulations of his life.

I do not like suffering. I do not like hard times or wish them upon anyone. I think God works through blessings and that going through suffering is not the answer to all of life's challenges. But in my 32 years, I cannot dismiss the clarity of God's voice when all other distractions are removed from my life in the middle of a crisis.

And though we're jumping ahead, I want to look at periods of pain like Job did in chapter 23: 9-10:

When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.

"How did Joseph break the dysfunction that had hurt his family for generations?"

He came forth as gold.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Genesis 40 - It's OK to not drown.

I have friends that sometimes say, "I'll just wait and see what God does in this situation." I don't think that's inherently wrong. I think there are lots of times when God wants us to sit still. Where He wants to have us waiting for His rescue. But I also think it's easy to think that's the only way He works. I think it can be tempting to hide in the fact that He is going to do it and all we need to do is wait.

But Joseph didn't wait.

Have you ever noticed that? He campaigned for his exit by telling the baker and the cup bearer: But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon."

Joseph made plans. He was proactive with his actions. He knew God would not strike him dead in the dungeon for trying to get out. He was not punished for making his case to baker and the cup bearer. It didn't work out initially, but I don't think that is the point.

I think the point is that if you're drowning, God is not going to criticize you for raising your own head above the water. Just as it is not a matter of my lack of trust in God for me to put up a gate at the top of the stairs to prevent my children from falling down. Could God prevent them from falling without the gate? Certainly. Could He heal them if they did? Without a doubt. Is He angry that I put up the gate. I don't think so.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Genesis 39 - The past comes present

"I never saw that before" is a phrase I am getting used to saying. On all three sites I write, I keep tripping over things that I think must be obvious to other people. But for some reason I have not seen them. They have hidden in the weeds of life and I have missed them. Here's something I realized today.

Chapter 39 of Genesis is the section where Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph. This is the section where Joseph ends up in jail. And when we get to chapter 41, I'll talk a little more about the purpose of jail, but there's something cool in this chapter too.

Here is an excerpt of what Joseph said to Potiphar's wife when she came on to him. He essentially lays out a case based on how much trust Potiphar has put in him:

"everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"

I never realized that this, this is what Adam should have said to the serpent in the garden of Eden. This is the speech he should have given. These are almost the exact words, except perhaps we should switch out "house" for the word "garden" and "wife" for the word "fruit":

"everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this garden than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except this fruit, because this is his fruit. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"

But Adam didn't say that. Joseph did. And though they were both kicked out of their homes, Adam the garden and Joseph Potiphar's house, they were headed in very different directions. Because for Joseph, an already crazy life was about to get crazier. And that's where we'll pick up in Chapter 40.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Genesis 38 - the question

If we believe that the Bible is not accidental, that the words and pages and passages are not just a loosely scripted history of our faith, then we have to look at it differently. In addition to saying, "What does that verse mean?" we have to say, "Why was that verse there in the first place?"

Not even in a contextual way, but on a higher level, "Why was that included in the Bible" kind of way. And chapter 38 of Genesis is a perfect example of that. Let's remember what happened in chapter 37. When we last left Genesis, Joseph was being sold to the Egyptians. In a climatic moment, he was sold into slavery by his brothers and his father Jacob was mourning his reported death. It was intense and powerful and passionate.

But chapter 38 starts off slowly. Suddenly, like a soap opera jumping plot lines, we pick up with Judah and Tamar. Suddenly we leave the action behind and are thrust into the middle of a tale about family obligation and law. Sure, there is deception and intrigue and prostitution and mistaken identities, but it feels like it comes out of left field.

So instead of talking about the specific words in this chapter I want to talk about why it is here? Why did this tale about Judah's failure and unwillingness to follow the law by sleeping with and initially abandoning a pregnant prostitute, make it into the Bible? And why is it right here, sandwiched in the middle of the Joseph story?

My life application Bible says the story is meant to serve as a contrast between Joseph and Judah. For while Joseph is about to prove his mettle as a man of God, Judah is spiraling downward. While Joseph is about to raise high despite his circumstances as a slave, Judah is about to sink deep despite his circumstances as a son of Jacob.

It's a really powerful picture, the two different lives, and I think there is one thing I will take from this. And it's not that complicated although sometimes I wish it were. You see, in my life, if something is too complicated, I use that as an excuse to not do it. For instance, we have a phone service that receives all the messages on our home phone. You have to enter in all these passwords and codes and ID numbers to listen to the message. So in three years of having it, I have never once checked the messages. My wife does it for me because I always say, "that's so complicated. I don't want to bother with that."

The truth is that sometimes I do the same thing with the Bible. I try to make it complicated so I can ignore it like my home voice mails. But the truth is that sometimes it is simple. Sometimes it is obvious and clear and undeniable. I think chapter 38 of Genesis is an example of that. I think a really simple question emerges that we can ask ourselves everyday. It's the only thing I hope you take from this post and it goes like this:

"Today, do I want to be Joseph or Judah?"

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Genesis 37 - the opposite of me

I often like to think that when God gives you a blessing or a mission or in some way jumps down into your life, great things are about to happen. You are about to go on an adventure that will be exciting and fun and filled with happy God moments. But that’s not what happened to Joseph.

I once heard a minister say that one of the most dangerous times in our lives is right after God has spoken in to them. I think that is an interesting point that could be argued using chapter 37 of Genesis. Not to crack open any deep theological discussion, but look what happened to Joseph immediately after he had his dream.

In the first half of the chapter he has a dream in which his brothers bow down to him. After hearing the dream, they decide to either kill him or sell him into slavery. How can that be? I mean God just gave him a huge dream, a vision that was wild and amazing? How can the first step towards having people bow down be landing in slavery?

I want God to make sense, but He doesn’t. All too often, He seems to choose the exact opposite of what I would choose. It’s like He tells me to move to the ocean. So I buy bathing suits and a boat and a dock and I do everything I can to get ready for water. Then He says, “OK, you’re moving to the ocean, so the first thing I want you to do is go spend a few years in the desert. I want you to go a million miles away from the ocean.”

That doesn’t make sense. That is illogical. But I swear that is how God works. When Joseph had a dream of greatness, the first step was slavery. When Christ was called forward to save mankind during the baptism with John, the next thing he did was go spend 40 days alone. When you were called to get a new job, the next thing that happened was you got a promotion at your current one. When you were called into the ministry, instead of going to seminary God asked you to study Italian for a few years.

Sometimes we get the opposite of what we expect, like Joseph getting a shackle instead of a scepter. But when it comes to God, He always gives us what we need.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Genesis 36 - important

My wife can't stand when I chew gum near her. Apparently, I am a very loud gum chewer. I am enthusiastic with my big league chew and hubba bubba. So if we are ever teasing each other, I know a great way to frustrate her is to chew some gum. Loudly.

We know each other well like that and so did Esau and his father Isaac. That is why the very second verse in chapter 36 is such a big deal. It's not complicated, the big things are often simple, but here is what it says:

"Esau took his wives from the women of Canaan: …"

The reason that is a big deal is that Isaac specifically and repeatedly warned about intermarrying. In fact, the very first thing he says to Jacob when he blesses him in chapter 28 is, "Do not marry a Canaanite woman."

And yet, that is the very first thing we learn about Esau in chapter 36. It's like he went out of his way to hurt his father. It's like he went out of his way to pick the sharpest knife to stab him with. The scary thing is, I'm not that different sometimes.

The reason why is that sin aims for the most important issues. It cuts deepest in the places God has gifted us deepest. It seeks out our most critical relationships like father and son, husband and wife, brother and brother, and tries to sever them.

Satan is not all knowing or all powerful or able to be everywhere at the same time. But he is very efficient out of necessity. He knows that he can do the greatest damage with the least possible effort if he strikes at something important. He won't try to spoil your talent for singing if you only do it in the shower. The minute you think about joining a praise team though, prepare for the arrival of doubt. He won't waste his limited energy on your broken relationship with your dad until you try to repair it.

What does that mean for you and me? It means that we have to protect the things that matter in this life. We have to guard our hearts and our relationships. We have to prayerfully deal with them and lean on God. Because ultimately, it's very easy for us all to become Isaac and Esau.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Genesis 35 - little gods

I miss things in the Bible. I am constantly surprised at the things I do not see in the verses I read until someone points them out. But it's hard to miss how broken Abraham's family has become in Genesis 35. And yet God continues to both use and bless them.

The chapter opens up with God giving Jacob an instruction to build an altar to Him. That is a gift of a task, a chance to serve the Lord and carry out His direct order. But do you know what Jacob has to do first? He has to empty his house of false idols. Here is what Jacob says in verse 2, "Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes."

I feel like that sometimes. I feel like God has a task He wants me to do. He has a lot He wants me to accomplish for Him, but my house and my heart are too full of foreign gods. There is no room for Him or His work. I have my own mission and do not have the time or spiritual space in my heart for Him.

I wonder though, does God still work that way? Does He call us to do things that we can't really do when we've still got foreign gods in our eyes? Do we ever have to empty our own houses before we get to build an altar to Him?

Hard to say, but a few months ago something happened that makes me think maybe that's still the way God works. On a Monday, I emailed my counselor who I had not seen in over a year. I basically said, "I need to start seeing you again. This silly website I started has grown and I think I will become a jerk if I don't get grounded in the Lord." 24 hours after I sent that email, the first book publisher contacted me out of the blue.

Maybe that was coincidence. Maybe emailing my counselor wasn't an act of me cleaning up my house and my heart. Maybe the publisher's email had nothing to do with anything at all. But maybe, God still believes that we can't build His altar, we can't walk His road, we can't move in His direction, if we are still in love with foreign gods.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Genesis 34 - The snake

Genesis is dropping some heavy truths right now and chapter 34 is no different.

I think that one of the tricky things about sin is that it permeates every aspect of our life naturally. For instance, when I am struggling with lust, I will physically gain weight. My performance at work will change. How I respond to simple issues at home changes. The sin in my heart is not contained to one area of my life. It naturally flows through every inch of my existence.

You see that truth here in this chapter. Shechem rapes Dinah, Jacob's daughter. That is a grievous, personal sin. He forced himself on her and acted out of lust. But sin is never satisfied with just having one area of our lives. So Shechem agrees to have himself and his entire town circumcised when Jacob's sons tell him that is the condition to marry Dinah.

That is a transactional mistake. That is a dumb decision but Shechem's thinking was corrupted by his lust. If you read the chapter you see that Shechem thought of the circumcision like a business deal. He told his town that they would get all the property of Jacob and circumcising themselves was worth that gain. At that point, the sin essentially entered his business world.

Jacob's sons then came and murdered the entire city, when all the men there were weakened from being recently circumcised.

Sin works that way. It's never just "this area of my life." It pollutes you entirely like a snakebite. Have you ever seen what they do when a poisonous snake bites your foot? They tie a rope tight around your leg. Why? Because venom travels. It might start on your toe, but in seconds it is in your bloodstream and then your leg and then your heart.

Sin is poison. If you know it's in one area of your life, please don't make the mistake of thinking it will stay there. I have in the past and it always cost me more than I expected to pay.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Genesis 33 - Inside the ring

Much like most of the Bible, you can interpret this chapter two very different ways.

Some people see Jacob sending his family in front of him on the way to meet Esau as a sign of respect. That he was following protocol by sending the most important people in front of the crowd. I feel like that disagrees with the little I know about culture back then as far as how women were treated, but I could be completely wrong.

The second way to interpret this passage, the way I would like to, is that Jacob sent his family ahead to meet Esau because he was afraid. He was scared. It was a deceitful move, pure and simple. Just like so many other tricks he had played, living up to his namesake before God renamed him.

If we believe the idea that Jacob put his family first as a buffer against Esau, I think we reveal an interesting truth about fear and maybe even temptation. Here is my rather simple idea:

When it comes to temptation and fear, we will sacrifice anything to save ourselves.

By that I mean without God, nothing will stop us from acting out in sin. I have friends that will say things like "now that I'm married I won't look at porn" or "now that I am a father I won't work long hours." Or, "I'm afraid to tell my parents what I did, so I'll carry around the suffocating burden of this for years."

But that rarely ever works. The reason, which I have mentioned before, is that sin is like to massive monster waiting for you in a boxing ring. And when you lean on your wife or your kid instead of God, you are asking them to climb into the ring for you. You are saying to your toddler, "Daddy struggles with working too much and being emotionally vacant when he gets home, I need you to go fight that monster for me." Or you ask your wife, "I've developed an addiction I simply can't beat. Why don't you go inside that ring and fight for me."

Jacob gave up his family out of fear. Pastors give up their entire congregations to affairs. I gave up so much time with my kids when I worked long, long days. We will give up anything and none of it is ever enough to save us. None of the sacrifices we make change the end of the story.

God is the only thing that can win in that ring. I promise.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Genesis 32 - why I wrestle

I love my counselor. I know that sometimes, particularly in Christian circles, counselors get bad raps. And it's true, there are some bogus counselors out there. Just like there are bogus accountants, bogus mechanics and bogus every other profession.

But my counselor is prone to saying small things that rock my world in a big way.

About a year ago, I confessed some frustration I was having with God. I just felt like I was struggling with Him, like we were pushing each other around and battling over a few issues. My counselor listened and then said,

"God loves that."

This is not the answer I was expecting. I thought he would say, "You need to trust the Lord more." Or "You need to let go and let God." But he didn't say that. He said that God loves when I wrestle with Him. I of course asked why.

"Jon, do you know what is true about wrestling? Have you ever stopped to think about the nature of wrestling? God loves to wrestle with us, because you can't wrestle with someone that is far away. They have to be close to you. It's a very intimate, personal activity."

And I think he was right. I think that God wants me close. I think He wants me near to His side, close enough to feel His breath and know His strength. And when I approach to wrestle over an issue with Him, like Jacob wrestling, I don't think He is angry. I think He is happy, because I am close.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Genesis 31 - Island

Sin is never an island.

I wish it were. I wish that it was easy to isolate sin like finding a single leak in a dam. Having patched it, we could walk away confident that everything was under control.

I used to think that. I used to believe that if I got my biggest issue under control, everything else would be fine. But over the years I have realized how wrong that is. If I run with the dam analogy, then sin is a rushing river. When I patch one hole or fix one weak spot, it starts to look for another. It pushes and pulls at our lives until another weakness is revealed.

For me, that meant when I got my lust under control, my work addictions went crazy. Suddenly, I started looking for the same sense of control, false of course, that lust had given me, but in a different way. I didn't fix anything, my sin just continued inside my life to a different place. When I focused on fixing work, it flowed to my relationship with my wife. When we worked on things together it moved on to some childhood stuff I needed to deal with. It just kept going and going and going.

That was what Chapter 31 of Genesis felt like tonight. It's just a train wreck. Jacob is fleeing Laban by lying to him. He is stealing away under false pretenses. Meanwhile, Rachel adds to the sin parade by stealing Laban's idols. She then lies about having them, when Laban chases them down. The lives in this story are so tied together in sin and failure.

The chapter feels like an episode of the show "Cops." Just one sin after another, flowing from life to life to life.

Sin is not a circle. It is a figure eight. When you think you've stopped it, when you think you've dammed it, it flows to another part of the figure eight. And if you're like me, sin is actually a big ball of yarn, with a thousand entries and tangles and pathways, woven together so tightly they choke. And without God they only get more knotted.

Things are going to come unraveled in this story soon. God is about to do some cool stuff that I can't wait to write about from these chapters. But until then, remember something simple. Sin is never an island. It always travels with friends.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Genesis 30 - The Mandrake Soap Opera

Chapter 30 of Genesis is like a soap opera. Everyone is sleeping with each other, cheating each other out of sheep, repeating the mistakes of their parents, bartering sex for mandrakes. The whole thing is a mess.

And I think that mess has probably been discussed a million different times by a million different writers. But I am a big fan of the "edge verses," those little lessons that we miss because they are hidden on the edges of neon stories. Like the ones in this chapter. So instead of focusing on all the action, I want to write about six words Rachel says in verse 1. What are they? They are actually very simple:

"Give me children, or I'll die."

This is such a perfect picture of jealousy and envy. In the first half of the sentence she makes a demand. She orders Jacob to give her children. But the reality is that Jacob is not a God. He cannot simply give her children, a fact he points out by saying "Am I in the place of God?" The problem, is that's how jealousy works. It makes our object of desire impossible. It makes what we want and our attempts to get it impossible. Had she asked God, at the bare minimum Rachel
would have been asking someone capable of fulfilling the command. But Jacob can't.

I see this in marriages sometimes and to some degree, this is Hollywood's fault. We've bought into the Jerry McGuire idea of thinking our husbands and wives "complete us." They don't. They can't. They won't. And when you put that kind of pressure on them, you cripple them. Your wife can inspire you, challenge you, encourage you, warm your heart, but only God can complete you. Only God can do the seemingly impossible, whether that's giving you children or giving you self esteem and making you whole.

In the second half of the sentence Rachel lays out an extreme consequence of what will happen if her demand is not met. She will die. She throws the die card. Not that she will be unhappy or sad or unfulfilled, she will die. I know that feeling. There are things in my own life that I struggle with when it comes to envy. Authors or young pastors I am jealous of. There are other blogs I wish I could be like. I wrestle with my own sense of jealousy and desperate demands and ugly envy.

I wish I didn't. I wish that most of these chapters in Genesis did not apply so directly to my own life, but they do. My challenge to you is that the next time you find yourself making a demand of what you need, or a consequence of what will happen if you don't get it, remember Rachel.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Genesis 29 - The safety of wait

The first time I asked my potential father-in law if I could marry his daughter he said no.

The second time I asked him, he also said no.

I was disappointed to say the least, but looking back on it now, I realize he wasn't trying to say no, he was trying to say "wait." He knew his daughter was special and wanted me to take the time to see that too. He knew I was just some fresh mouthed kid with a really small understanding of love and marriage and life. He wanted me to grow up a little, to learn how to love his daughter not leap into loving his daughter.

But I didn't want to wait.

So we got married on my time frame and in some ways, going fast ended up really slowing us down. By speeding into marriage, we had to figure out some things in the first few years that other people figure out before they get married. We had to work through issues that we could have discussed prior to marriage. We had to, in some ways, pay the consequences of rushing.

I bring this up because in chapter 29, Jacob worked for 14 years to marry Rachel. Wow, I don't think I waited 14 days to propose to my wife after my father-in law said wait. Other than breathe, there are not many things I have done for 14 years straight. That is such a long time.

The marriage rush is over. My current wait or run or what do you want me to do God issue is publishing a book. I want it to happen right this second but maybe God is protecting me from it like my father-in law tried to protect me from the cost of rushing at marriage. Success can be one of the most dangerous poisons of all. Maybe God's hand is staying the cup even as I struggle to bring it to my lips.

My prayer today is that we'd all wait. In the right ways for the right reasons. And that when it is time to run, we will be ready.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Genesis 28 - Still

(I'm back from a short wedding filled trip to North Carolina. Let's pick up where we left off in chapter 28.)

Has God lost a step?

Does He still have His A game?

Is He still as sharp and as skilled at being God as He used to be?

I raised those questions on stuff christians like one day and I think they still need to be raised. Why? Because sometimes I act like He's not as powerful as He used to be. And this chapter is a perfect example of what I mean.

In chapter 28, God speaks to Jacob through a dream. While asleep, he dreams about a staircase and God speaks truth to him. Dream messages are actually not that unusual in the Bible. Joseph gets several messages when Jesus was being born and it's easy to go back through the Bible and find several other examples. But what if your friend told you God had done the same thing to them last night? What would you think?

I confess, I'd think that was a little weird. I would have a hard time believing them. And the reason is that sometimes my God is pretty tame. I mean He only really uses the Bible and maybe sometimes people to speak to me. A dream? A sunset? A nightmare? A song? That's iffy at best.

But maybe God hasn't changed. Maybe that's part of what it means for Him to be unchangeable. Maybe deep in sleep is a land He still wants to rule. Maybe last night's dream was actually this day's challenge.

In the last six months, I've had two nightmares that shook me up in a spiritual way. Was it just that I ate something weird before bed? Has God vacated the dreams we have? Hard to say, but if God is unchangeable, then maybe, just like Jacob, we need to admit He gets to choose the way He speaks, even if we're not awake.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Genesis 27 - I Jacob

Just as it was tempting to judge Esau, it is equally tempting to cast an eye of anger toward Jacob. What a dysfunctional family we see on display. In chapter 27, Jacob tricks his father out of the blessing he intended to give Esau. He lies and cheats until he gets what he wants.

How does he pretend to be his brother? Primarily by dressing up as him in skins that mimic Esau's hairy arms. I want to judge Jacob, I do, but I've done the same thing in my own life.

Sometimes when faced with a challenge, I will wear a mask instead of doing the work of actually becoming what I want to be. The best example of this is perhaps the first few years of my marriage. My wife and I never had a disagreement for the first five years we are married. Before you clap at our ability to get along, let me say this was not a product of us doing well. It was a product of us being fake.

Two, strong, alive inside, people are bound to disagree. That is OK. That is healthy and honest and real. But we both thought that being a good Christian couple meant never arguing. So instead of investing in the hard work of being intimate and real with our feelings, we put on the mask of "happiness." We concealed our hopes and dreams in order to steal from each other the concept of a "good marriage."

It didn't work. The real stuff just festered. It just boiled over inside because no matter how many "good husband" masks I wore, I was the same unchanged person. And just like Jacob had to flee when his deception was revealed, we emotionally fled each other and our relationship suffered.

Things are different now. We don't wear masks or animal skins like Jacob. We argue. We disagree. We engage about the things we really care about. Is our marriage perfect? Not by a long shot, but it is real. And that's something I am really happy about.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Genesis 26 - Soon

I go to counseling. Right now, I see counselor #3, a guy named Chuck. He is like this crazy six foot four motorcycle riding dude with a huge tattoo that has the word "life" in a dozen different languages. And a few weeks ago, he dropped a scriptural bomb on me. Just some ridiculously cool knowledge.

And in a few days, when we get to the point in Genesis that he told me about, I hope to drop it on you too. But to do that, I need to set it up a little. I need to reflect a tiny bit on Isaac.

The thing that strikes me about this chapter is that Isaac repeats the same exact sin that his father Abraham did. Abraham lied and said Sarah was his sister. Isaac lies and says that Rebekah is his sister. It is such a clear portrayal of generational sin.

I know I have written about how important it is to understand your family of origin. How critical it is to know what you learned from your mom and dad. But I do agree with the doubters. I don't think looking at your childhood should be a way for you to blame your present mistakes on things in your past. My father didn't make me choose the wrong things as a 32 year old. He might have impacted my decision making process as a child, but the responsibility for what I do is mine.

So what I don't want to miss in this chapter is the exact replica Isaac becomes of Abraham in his lying. I sometimes do that. I read something in the Bible and think it is in there "just because." Not that I need to learn from it but that it's just filler, stuff to move the story along. But I don't really think the Bible is accidental. I think regardless of how big or small, every passage has a purpose. I think the purpose of this one is to teach us something that is true of most humans. We tend to repeat what we do not take the time to understand.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Genesis 25 - Easy 300

It's easy when you read chapter 25 to judge Esau. I mean he was dumb. He gave away his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of red stew. Granted, Jacob was deceptive, but still, it's a big mistake to make. It was a stupid thing to trade. But we do it all the time.

A few months ago, I was talking to a married friend. He said he was struggling with being flirty with girls at his gym. He really felt like for him, being a member of a health club was impeding his walk the Lord as it regularly stirred up such strong feelings of lust. When I suggested he quit the gym and either buy a treadmill or run outside, he looked at me like I was crazy.

He didn't want to give up his gym membership. He didn't want to make that sacrifice. When faced with his freedom in Christ or a fun place to exercise, he choose the gym.

Sometimes life is black and white like that. We like to think we are not choosing something other than God, but we are. For me, it was the movie "300." I read that it had nudity in it. I have often said that lust is an issue for me. For me to choose to see that movie was to choose against God. He and I had a clear understanding about things like that. I was just like Esau, faced with what should have been an obvious decision. Watch 300 and add fuel to the lust fire, or skip the movie and focus on the things God has called me to.

Our faith doesn't disappear when we choose the wrong thing. We might not lose our birthright, but we do have to make a choice. And sometimes we choose the small, temporary things because we are hungry for a cup of stew when the big, beautiful, long term things are right in front of us too.

Just like Esau.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Genesis 24 - Stride

Right now, the biggest hole in my life, is that I don't have a mentor. I don't have an older, wiser person helping me make some of the weird decisions I am starting to face. Like writing a book, speaking at churches, consulting ministry organizations etc. And I think in general, it's hard sometimes to find that person.

I think it's a challenge because some times people give us counsel that is more about them and less about us. Although it might be cloaked in words that feel as if they are meant for us, if we step back, we can see it's really all about them.

That's why I like the way Abraham's chief servant handled Laban's request to stay longer than he should. The servant had a mission. He was laser focused on fulfilling God's command so when Laban tried to delay him, he said without hesitation: "Do not detain me, now that the Lord has granted me success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master."

I love that, the directness of it, the clarity of it and I need to learn from that. What I need to learn too is that often, when someone tries to detain you, there are three possible inappropriate reasons they are slowing you down:

1. They are afraid you will leave them behind as you journey outward.
2. They once had the same vision or passion as you and regret that they never fulfilled it and thus want company in their misery.
3. They are currently ignoring their own calling and your obedience is uncomfortably highlighting their disobedience.

I agree, sometimes a delay is exactly what you need to hear. I want to publish a book right this minute and my wife has been beautiful in speaking "slow down" into my life. And I am praying for a mentor. I am hoping that God will helicopter in some author or speaker that has walked this same road. But in the meantime, I am being cautious with the advice I receive because I want to be focused. I don't want to be detained for the wrong reasons. I want to go to my master.