Monday, December 14, 2009
1Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
2Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
3Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.
Often in church circles you’ll hear someone say that they “make a joyful noise” – a term that comes from Psalm 100. It may be said with a chuckle, implying that the speaker doesn’t sing well but is still passionate about singing God’s praises, nevertheless.
There’s a lot to be said for effort and enthusiasm. And there’s a place for those for whom effort and enthusiasm represent their level of expertise. God, certainly, sees our hearts, and accepts our worship on that basis, rather than the ability (or inability) to stay on pitch. On the other hand, the person who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, as the saying goes, shouldn’t be offended he or she isn’t chosen to lead the praise team or singing a solo.
There’s also something to be said for excellence. In the passage above, the psalmist encourages the reader to “play skillfully”- which takes things to another level altogether.
How many times have you heard someone at a piano concert comment, “Oh, I wish I could play like that!” We recently went to the Triangle Youth Ballet’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” in Chapel Hill to see my cousin’s daughter dance…the entire troupe personified the logical outcome to natural talent combined with hours and years of practice, coupled with dedicated instruction. I’m sure many little girls and boys watching thought, “Oh, I wish I could dance like that!”—but relatively few will take that thought and turn it into a reality.
They may not have the natural “build” for a dancer, they may lack financial resources, they may be able to find time for video games and television but not for long and arduous practices. Whatever the reasons, they will always watch dancing wistfully and appreciatively, but never partake in it…at an advanced level…themselves.
To be skillful means to be sacrificial—the minister who delivers a thought-provoking, heart-changing sermon on Sunday has spent hours of preparation…years, actually, as everything he or she has experienced beforehand (good and bad) has added to the flavor of the message. The singer who gives life to words, the writer who communicates what someone has always felt but never been able to convey adequately, the artist who captures the glories of creation in unique ways and through varied media, the actor who takes someone’s vision and makes it believable…it all comes at a price, and few are willing to pay it.
Ministers research and study and compare and pray. Singers train and memorize and watch their diet and prepare in ways that most of us take for granted. We just know they sound good, without looking at what they’ve done for that to happen. Writers write—to the exclusion of other activities they may wish they had more time for. Artists sketch and study and try different techniques, perhaps throwing out ten attempts before getting the results they’re after. Actors rehearse, toiling over lines and blocking and direction, and those who make it look the most effortless, have put the most effort into the preparation.
The psalmist challenges us to take things to another level. Step it up a little. Stretch ourselves. Not just play at life, but play skillfully. Not just get by, settling for mediocrity and what passes for “normal” in our neck of the woods, but to keep pressing on toward excellence.
If I started ballet training today, I would never achieve the skill to perform onstage in “The Nutcracker.” But I can still take my desire to move and communicate music and stretch myself by worshipping God in the dance, whether privately or in a sacred, corporate setting. If I were to begin to run daily, I would never become an Olympic competitor, but I can try to run further, or faster, tomorrow than I did today. As a writer, I need to continually challenge myself to write better, with more discipline and less complacency.
Most of us will never be “stars” in the eyes of the world. We each have limitations, whether being tone deaf, or handicapped in some way, or not having the financial freedom to take the best classes or go to the finest schools, or having obligations that prevent the single-mindedness that is necessary for being “the best.” Indeed, God is often in such limitations so that we turn God-given interests and skills into objects of worship.
Instead of using these limitations as excuses, however, we need to realize what we are capable of and what God expects from us…to rely on God’s abilities, not our own, and to use the talents and abilities he has given us, to achieve the most for his glory and his kingdom as we can.
It is “fitting” for us to praise our God.
Monday, November 30, 2009
I defy anyone to keep an accurate count of their calorie intake between Thanksgiving and New Year’s…there’s just too much variety this time of year, too much richness, too many yellowed and tattered heirloom recipe cards pulled from between the pages of favorite cookbooks. This is the time of year that we most easily excuse and justify excess—it’s the holidays! We’re celebrating! Care for more whipped cream on that slice?
And that’s just the food. This is also, historically, in our nation anyway, the biggest buying season, the max-out-every-credit-card-season, the I’ve-got-to-buy-her-something-season. Would it be Scrooge-like to interrupt the festivities with a quiet call to…moderation? Even (gasp) discipline?
The season of Advent does indeed celebrate the coming of Jesus, the Christ child, but I wonder if we might better celebrate his birth by obedience to the teachings he delivered later in life. Mightn’t it be a novel approach to the holiday season of So Much to consciously, perhaps even painfully, do without?
It sounds almost sacrilegious. Easter is the season of sacrifice—Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross of Calvary—not Christmas. But what if we entered this time of year symbolically emptying ourselves? Cutting back, not just in one area, but in every area.
Because Jesus spoke directly to eating, that’s a good place to start: “My disciples will fast” (Matthew 9:15). Jesus said those words, those clear and emphatic words. In the midst of all the wonderfully aromatic kitchens, would he really dare say them to us? Now? Doesn’t he know it’s Christmas!!
“My disciples will fast.”
After the first of the year—that’s a better time to start. My blood sugar won’t let me. I get headaches. It would disrupt the household. I have to eat with the pills I take. That was for the disciples back then. If I fasted, I’d struggle with pride. I don’t want to be hyperspiritual. That’s just a little too charismatic, if you ask me. I’ve never fasted, and I’m a good Christian.
“My disciples will fast.”
Notice that Jesus didn’t say his disciples would fast one day a week, or three days a month, or on special days of the year. He didn’t say they would do it at the same time. He didn’t say it had to be from sundown to sundown, or from dinner tonight until breakfast the day after tomorrow. He didn’t say fasting is only effective if it lasts 3 days, or 7, or 40. He just said that his disciples will do it.
We usually think of fasting as “not” doing something, specifically, not eating. Jesus didn’t say, however, that his disciples “won’t eat.” Fasting is an active discipline, requiring the use of willpower, self-control, dependence on God—all good things to develop, good things that when acquired in sufficient measures, spill over into other areas of our lives.
Which begs the question…begs two questions, actually: Do you consider yourself to be a disciple? And if so, when will you be fasting next?
I submit that setting aside even one day during this season will help us maintain our perspective, help us focus on Christ, rather than Christmas. Help us empty ourselves a little more of self, that he may fill us anew with his Spirit. By giving ourselves even a brief respite from all the excess through a fast, we might even enjoy it more when we do sit down to a feast. Just a thought…
Permission to reprint with acknowledgement of source.
Monday, November 16, 2009
“Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.”- Ashleigh Brilliant.
“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” – Jesus Christ.
There are several parables that talk about God’s desire that all people be saved. A woman loses a coin and turns her house upside down to find it. When she does, she invites everyone over to celebrate. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep that are exactly where they’re supposed to be to hunt down the one that is not, finds it, brings it back to the safety of the fold.
Interestingly, although the parable of the Prodigal Son falls in line with the other two, no one goes looking for the prodigal once he chooses to take his inheritance and leave. His father waits for him from home, longing for the day when his son comes to his senses and returns.
Three similar stories, but let’s look at the differences. A coin has no choice where it is. Inanimate, it depends on someone picking it up and laying it down. The woman lost the coin; the coin didn’t “get lost.” This strikes so close to home, because I am constantly unable to put my hands on a piece of paper or a photo or something I really, really need RIGHT NOW because of my own lack of organization (only occasionally because of helpful people who move my stuff, but that’s so much easier to take!).
So the coin is lost, but it isn’t to blame. Think of people out in the world who have never heard the gospel, never heard “Jesus” except as a curse word, never known tenderness or training. They are lost without a relationship with the God who loves them, but is it because of something they did? Perhaps the woman in the story is a Church who has let people fall through the cracks, who hasn’t gone out into the highways and byways looking for those in need, who hasn’t gone out into the fields “white with harvest” and brought in the sheaves.
The sheep? Sheep are pretty stupid, really. We raised goats for awhile and their level of intelligence is similar. There may be 20 acres of lush pasture grass but one or two will get their horns stuck in the fence trying to reach something on the other side. We’d make fence runs, calling out “Maaaaaaaaaas” and head for the faint sound of another dumb goat caught. And of course they didn’t just stand there quietly while horns were disentangled; they fought you. They were stressed, fatigues, frightened…and inevitable struggled against the very people trying to help.
Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? When people stray from the path of righteousness, when people leave the foundations they know, the teachings on which they were brought up, they invariably find trouble. They’re lost because they got distracted by the pull of something just out of reach and lost track of time, not hearing the shepherd’s call back to the fold. Entangled by weakness and addiction, those who love them enough to track them down and try to pull them back to safety may have a fight on their hands, but it is a fight worthy of the time and energy.
The prodigal is without excuse. He knows better, but he chooses the easy life, the lazy life. He wants instant gratification, not years of faithful service. He wants to play fast and loose with the money someone else earned, with the teachings someone else paid a price for learning. Rather than someone who is unsaved, perhaps he best represents the backslidden believer, the deceived disciple, the carnal Christian. He knows the love of the Father, the wealth of his provision, but he has grown impatient to fulfill his destiny. He wants to launch out on his own, has a better idea than faithfully toiling in the fields with his brother.
His brother doesn’t go after him. His father doesn’t send messages or plead for him to come back. It has to be the prodigal’s decision or it will, at best, be a temporary return for spending money and a full belly before heading back to the world.
It seems the perfect place for Jesus to talk about coming to seek and find the lost, but he saved that nugget for the story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who climbed a sycamore tree, entertained Jesus with a meal at his demand, and was so moved that he committed to follow Jesus and live a life of generosity and honesty. He stopped long enough to listen to Jesus, and that was all it took—just a tiny gesture of interest, and Jesus took it from there.
Jesus is indeed the Lord of the Lost. What is lost in your life today? Finances? Dreams? A relationship? A child? A marriage? A job? Your favorite pen (I’m still hoping someone finds it—cobalt blue, with real gold trim, a gift from my son Caleb well over a decade ago)? Stop the intensity and turmoil of life long enough to listen to what Jesus is saying. Ask him to find what it is you need, whether the answer is lying dormant within you or you need to go to a person in humility or it is time to accept a loss and move on.
He’s the Lord of the Lost, and of the Found. What a wonder to be found by him as the Prodigal’s father found his son on the road to his home, embracing him and rejoicing over his return.
Monday, November 2, 2009
When I was a little girl, our church participated in Trick or Treat for UNICEF—I remember walking around the college campus where we lived, dressed in the pilgrim outfit my mother had sewn (my sister was garbed a la Martha Washington), tightly clutching the valuable pennies that would benefit children on the other side of the world.
As a new mom, however, there was no UNICEF angle where we lived. I found myself questioning the history of Halloween and whether or not the things it promoted was what I wanted to promote in my children. The church I attended hosted an alternative to trick or treating, asking children to dress up as Bible characters instead of goblins and superheroes. Dress-up is fun, as well as being an important imagination-stimulator. That, I could handle. But we didn’t take the kids trick or treating.
I think they’ve forgiven me. The jury’s still out on the Santa thing.
Now that my children are adults and I’m a grandmother, I’ve had to adjust a little. When my oldest granddaughter attended a church pre-school, Halloween played a surprisingly huge part of their October curriculum. I bit my tongue at the Casper coloring pages, even made her a costume for the school parade, bought candy to hand out in the neighborhood. Didn’t like it, but went along for the ride.
I could get into the questionable beginnings of Halloween, the dark history, but instead, let me just give some personal thoughts. Our Lord is the Lord of life – Halloween, traditionally, focuses on death. Graveyards, R.I.P., ghosts haunting cemeteries…where is the fun in that? Having buried a son, and having found many hours of comfort praying and crying at his grave, a cemetery holds no fear for me. We will all die one day; Christians certainly have nothing to fear from death, because it is the gateway to eternal life—why make it a scary thing for impressionable children?
Witches and demons—and they are real, not cartoon characters to mimic or lampoon—do not celebrate the Lord of life, but raise creation to a status of equality with the Creator. Minions of the Lord of darkness, they manipulate us for evil purposes, tempt with sin, terrorize and taunt…anything to take our focus off of God and his promises. What possible good comes from dressing up like them and either diminishing the reality of their existence or paying homage to their powers?
And don’t even get me started on the latest vampire phase. Hollywood has taken killing and the eating of blood (forbidden in the Bible) and sanitized it to the point that tweens, teens, and adults who should know better, are swept into the romance of it all. “But this is about good vampires,” I’m told. Ever see them reading their Bibles? Do they go to church? Do they follow Jesus? I think not. Are they good role models for our children? They hate the light…which sounds familiar. Biblical, even, in a definitively negative context.
But the candy…everyone loves candy, right? We have a nation of overweight children (and adults) but on October 31 it’s okay to gorge ourselves on sweets. Aside from candy makers, who really benefits? The candy’s available throughout the year at every grocery store, but wrap it in orange and black, and it’s supposed to taste somehow better.
Call me strange if you will, but the whole concept of trick or treating rubs me the wrong way. Jesus preached a gospel of giving, not taking. Of doing good to others, not playing tricks on them when they don’t comply with our wishes. Maybe I’m being an extremist—certainly the majority of little children traipsing door to door have no mischief in mind—but I think words are important. When we sing “trick or treat”, we’re actually saying, “If you don’t give me a treat, I’m going to play a trick…and you won’t like it.” Not healthy, if you ask me…and nobody did, actually!
While I’m all for disregarding Halloween completely, I do appreciate the attempts to refocus people from haunted houses and that ilk onto more positive activities. The church with which I am blessed to be involved hosts a fall festival in October, free to the church kids and to the entire community. This past weekend we worked for its success, gave out tons of candy, dressed up ourselves (it’s always fun to pretend to be someone else!)…as well as showing a friendly face to folks who would otherwise not darken our doors. If that brings people to Christ, hallelujah! Use what Satan loves to use for bad, for good. It saddened me, though, as the caretaker of the Garden Tomb trying to solve the "Mystery of the Empty Tomb" that other events had sufficiently trained some kids to expect frightening objects to jump out at them as soon as they entered the darkened room. Some were really afraid...the opposite of what we wanted to provide for them.
On All Hallow’s Eve itself, I went to another church for their "Trunk or Treat" (candy was given out of the back of vehicles), heard the gospel message in exchange for a free hot dog, won a cupcake in a cakewalk, oohed and ahhhed at the adorable kids in costumes, and got to sit inside a firetruck. All in all, not a bad afternoon.
Later, I got lots of exercise following the grandkids and their friends as we snaked throughout our daughter’s neighborhood (sorely needed exercise after the amount of sweets consumed). It’s not that it wasn’t fun…it’s just that the same activities could have been done any time during the year without the ghosts, goblins, skeletons, vampires, werewolves, graveyards, witches, demons, serial killer costumes, fake blood, etc. etc. etc.
Okay, I’ve vented. Halloween’s over and no real wrong, hopefully, was done. Maybe I’m being too serious, too literal, too hyperspiritual. Maybe next year I’ll dress up as Elvira and score some Kit Kats myself.
Sarcasm. Just another service I offer.
Monday, October 19, 2009
I don’t know about you, but the number of quizzes my Facebook friends take is often staggering. Which Disney character are you most like? How much to you know about your hometown? What flower would you be? How long will you survive when zombies take over the earth? Where do they find the time, much less the inclination?
Not that I haven’t taken my share of quizzes—I’ve just leaned toward the sort that can help in the real world (assuming we’re never invaded by zombies). From temperament tests to spiritual gifts, from personality tests to determining my love language, these are actually helpful in determining our places in the body of Christ. We’re not all mouths, obviously, although sometimes it seems that way.
Let’s look at the New Testament scriptures that celebrate our diversity within the Body of Christ:
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully” (Romans 12:6-8, NIV).
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1st Corinthians 12:7-11, NIV).
“It was (Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:11-12, NIV).
“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides” (!st Peter 4:10-11, NIV).
These verses make it clear that Christians have different gifts, different flavors, if you will. Churches are like that as well—not just denominationally. Some churches, for instance, are called to focus on evangelism and discipleship while others have an anointing for worship and teaching. One church may be extremely active in mission work, while another is led to social activism. Every church will have elements of The Church—incorporating worship, teaching, evangelism, outreach, etc.—but sometimes one “gifting” sets a church apart. People in the community will sometimes pick up on this when members of the church don’t even notice. “That’s the church that helps the poor,” you might hear. “If you want strong Bible teaching, that’s the place to go,” “My cousin was healed at that church’s Sunday night service,” etc.
It is helpful to know when choosing a church home, or when (ideally) God leads you to a church and you are getting acclimated. If the church back back home spent two hours in spontaneous praise and worship and the one you’re visiting manages to squeeze in three hymns and the Doxology, you’re going to need to adjust if you decide to put down roots—chances are, they’re not going to adjust for you! If you’re strictly into exegesis and homiletics with a good mix of Greek and Hebrew thrown in, a church that doesn’t require seminary-trained preachers (1) may not be the best fit or (2) be exactly what you need.
One of the main complaints about churches is that “it just doesn’t meet my needs.” Years ago, I heard a speaker say that church isn’t supposed to be like a grocery store. The shelves aren’t stocked with everything you need. The church is where we are trained and equipped to give ourselves away. When we look to others to meet our needs, rather than to God himself, we will always be disappointed.
Permission to copy with acknowledgement of source.
Monday, October 5, 2009
We get hung up on the questions of life, but sometimes we're not asking the right ones.
We get hung up on “when”. When I finally get married…when I get that promotion…when we get out of debt…when I get a little R&R…when the kids are grown…when I graduate…when I can drive…when I retire…when we get back from vacation…when we get a new pastor…when my spouse changes…when my friend calls to apologize…when, when, when.
We wait for something else to happen, for others to act, for God to change those around us or for God to change our circumstances, or even for God to change us.
But it’s not about when, it’s about where. Not timing, but geography:
“If we walk IN THE LIGHT as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7, NRSV).
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide IN ME and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing: (John 15: 5, NRSV).
"As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge IN HIM” (2 Samuel 22:31, NIV).
Not when, but where.
We get hung up on ”how.” How is this ever going to work out? How will we ever make it through this? How can I face that person again? How can I be sure this is the right thing to do? How will I be able to live, after this? How, how, how. But it’s not about how, it’s about who. Not by what means shall something be accomplished, but by whom it will be accomplished:
“For from HIM and through HIM and to HIM are all things. To HIM be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:36, NIV)
“HE who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6, NIV).
“And God said unto Moses, ‘I AM THAT I AM’: and he said, ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you’” (Exodus 3:14, KJV).
We try to figure it all out ahead of time. We try to see further down the road than we have light for. We want to know the answers now, but why? So that we can offer our opinion? Approve the methods and strategies at work? How foolish we are, as if we could possibly know the Best.
It’s not about how, but Who.
And finally, perhaps most often, we get hung up on “why”. Why did this happen? Why did he die? Why can’t my loved one change? Why won’t they understand? Why can’t I let this go? Why can’t I do what I want, for once? Why, why, why.
But it’s not about why. I heard Carmen Leal speak at a Caregivers Conference a few years ago. When her husband was diagnosed with a rare illness and her own life turned upside down, she cried out to God with the inevitable “Why me?” After searching her heart, however, she changed her question to “Why NOT me?”
There is suffering all over the world. Why shouldn’t I have a taste? People are undergoing terrible trials and tribulations at any given moment. Why should I be any different? Whether the trouble comes from my own choices, or from someone else’s choices, or whether it is the hand of God training me for his own purposes, or whether it is an attack from the enemy of my soul…not one of us is exempt:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10, NIV).
“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18, KJV).
“In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33, NRSV).
Not why, but why not? We’re in this together, learning, growing, being stretched and challenged, being disciplined and blessed, but we’re in this with “him seated on the throne and…the Lamb…be blessing and honor and glory and might (to them) forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13, NRSV)
Permission to use with source given.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Because of my involvement—immersion, really—at this particular time, I was musing on the fairly common analogy of our lives as plays. So much that goes on with theater mirrors the Christian walk. You must be able to trust your fellow actors, for example, that each will learn and know each cue, each line. That your props will be safe, ready for your use. That the sound crew will stay on task. That sets will enhance, not distract from, the production. That the director will do all he or she can to bring out the talents necessary onstage for an excellent performance. I could go on and on. It’s easy to jump from such thoughts to the church, and beyond that, to life in general.
Is God the director in our lives, or merely part of the crew? Are the actors with whom we regularly perform trustworthy, or do we find ourselves constantly covering for their mistakes? Who is our audience—the world? God? The mirror? Our bosses or bank account? Have we studied our lines, laboring over each cue, each nuance, or expected what we should know to miraculously find its way into our little brains with minimal effort?
I came across the following unattributed essay online and found it very thought-provoking, although perhaps in a different direction than its writer intended:
“LIFE IS A THEATER; Invite Your Audience Carefully. Not everyone is healthy enough to have a front row seat in our lives. There are some people in your life that need to be loved from a DISTANCE. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you let go of, or at least minimize your time with, draining, negative, incompatible, not-going-anywhere relationships/friendships. Observe the relationships around you. Pay attention. Which ones lift and which ones lean? Which ones encourage and which ones discourage? Which ones are on a path of growth uphill and which ones are going downhill? When you leave certain people do you feel better or feel worse? Which ones always have drama or don't really understand, know or appreciate you? The more you seek quality, respect, growth, peace of mind, love and truth around you...the easier it will become for you to decide who gets to sit in the front row and who should be moved to the balcony of Your Life. ‘If you cannot change the people around you, CHANGE the people you are around.’ Remember that the people we hang with will have an impact on both our lives and our income. And so we must be careful to choose the people we hang out with, as well as the information with which we feed our minds. We should not share our dreams with negative people, nor feed our dreams with negative thoughts. It's your choice and your life..... It's up to you who and what you let in it.”
On the surface, that sounds very good, very sensible. We do need to be aware of those around us and their impact on our lives. It goes without saying that some relationships are healthy while others are poisonous—the sooner we rid ourselves of those, the better we will be. But…
On the other hand—not to sound hyper spiritual or cliché—but what did Jesus do? He hung out with the dregs of society whom the Good People of the town considered toxic. He invited a man to live with him for three years, fully cognizant of the fact that the man would betray him. He welcomed people with pasts to his most intimate conversations, never questioning whether he could trust them—knowing, indeed, that he could not.
Jesus “(changed) the people” he was around, but not by banishing them and substituting more appropriate, acceptable, uplifting, encouraging, helpful people in their place. He literally CHANGED them, from the inside out. People came into contact with him and left the better for that contact.
Which leaves me incredibly comforted (to know that Jesus would welcome even someone like me) and also incredibly challenged (to realize that I am much more likely to cut people out of my life who negatively affect it, rather than seek to be a positive influence in their lives). As in all things, there needs to be a balance, but do I err on the side of reaching out to people or pushing them away?
As with most things spiritual, there is a paradox at work. The Bible counsels us to be self-aware, to love our selves first and care for our emotional, physical, and spiritual health. There are valid times for separating ourselves from potentially harmful, even sinful, relationships. But when reading the above quote, I remember Henri Nouwen, who chose to care for a severely retarded man and take a vow of poverty, instead of continuing a life of public speaking and wealth. Or Mother Theresa, who saw Jesus in the eyes of the dying masses of India.
I’m not at their level of spiritual maturity, obviously-- I have trouble loving the people in my own household, at times! But I am “confident of this, that he who began a good work in (me) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6, NIV). I trust my director to get (even my) performance the way he intended. It may take an awful lot of rehearsals, because I often flub my lines or miss my cues, or refuse to even show up, but the show, as they say, must go on. God will see to that. If I remain under his direction.
That much, of course, is completely up to me.
Permission to use, with acknowledgement of the source.
Monday, September 7, 2009
We’ve probably all got our personal lists of despised activities and attitudes, ranging from serious to trivial. When we hear of someone doing something on our lists, we mentally assign appropriate punishments. If I were God, I would….
Years ago in Ft. Pierce, Florida, where we lived at the time, a young boy--only three or four--was murdered by a man who was supposedly taking care of him. The boy eventually died after being sexually assaulted with a household item of some kind—a chair leg, or a hose… I don’t remember. (Some details you don’t want to know.) The little boy’s name was Benjamin. I do remember that.
I also remember thinking that an appropriate sentence for Benjamin’s killer would be assault with an object of similar size-to-age correlation, forcing him to endure exactly what he had forced upon Benjamin. Even then, however, the killer wouldn’t have experienced the sheer terror of betrayal, the toddler-sense of being loved and cherished and safe turning inside out in the instant his babysitter became, right before his eyes, a beast.
Oddly, I’ve never been asked to sit on a jury.
I fear I’m growing less tolerant over time, not more. My grace is so pitifully limited, my love so devastatingly finite. God, on the other hand, has no limits at all to his love, grace, forgiveness, and pardon. “Whoever believes…” the Bible says. “Whoever comes…”
When six-year-old Adam Walsh was taken from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida in 1981 and decapitated, I was the mother of two young children. Rocking the baby to sleep one summer night shortly after the tragedy occurred, I remember praying for his family when the Holy Spirit whispered, “Can you pray for the person who murdered him?”
I tried. I’m pretty sure I mouthed the right words, but God, seeing my heart, found no compassion there. Knowing that Jesus had died for the sins of all, that he had died for my own sins… at that moment I wished for there to be limits on God’s goodness. Hell wasn’t just meant for Satan and his angels, surely, but for his agents of pain and suffering such as this criminal.
When my own shortcomings grow into actual wrongdoing…when I do not fall into sin so much as I leap into it…as a child would leap into a pile of dry leaves shouting “Wheeeeee!” is the way my friend Doug Easterday describes it…then I want my heavenly Father’s mercy to know no bounds. When you sin, however, especially when you sin against me!…not so much.
When I began writing this, I intended to discuss one of my pet peeves—people who claim to “be there” for you who clearly are not. The paradox is, of course, that God, who created us all to be in intimate relationship with him, not only has the most people crying out to him in need but also the largest capacity to meet those needs. Through some mysterious, mystical way, impossible for our tiny minds to grasp, he actually is “there for us” at all times, whether we acknowledge his presence, desire it, or push it away with all the anger of a little child being made to be still…until the child tires of struggling, relaxes in the loving yet firm arms, and falls peacefully to sleep. “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, NASV).
Benjamin’s murderer is, as far as I know, still alive. Adam Walsh’s murderer died in prison. One still has time to hear the gospel and believe, if he hasn’t already. It is possible the other cried out to God for mercy before it was too late. We may be very surprised at some of the people we rub shoulders with in heaven.
And some of them may be surprised to see us.
Permission to use with acknowledgement of source.
Monday, August 24, 2009
King David may have had many such circumstances in his passionate, roller-coaster ride of a life, but one comes to mind. In Second Samuel 16, David has fled Jerusalem because his own son, Absalom, has come against him. After he’d allowed personal weakness to pull him in a downward spiral, he had been forewarned by the prophet Nathan that this day would come, and with resignation and pain, he watched it unfold.
As David fled Jerusalem, a relative of David’s predecessor (and father-in-law) Saul…a man by the name of Shimei… taunted him with curses, throwing stones at the troubled king and his party as they passed by. One of David’s chiefs was incensed. “Just say the word,” he cried, “and I’ll have his head.”
But David stopped him (see verses 11-12): “My own son wants me dead! -- how much more this man who blames me for all his problems! Let him alone --maybe God will reward me with something good because he’s cursing me for no reason.”
God was faithful to his promises to David--soon David was again enthroned in Jerusalem. In time, knowing death was imminent he passed his reign on to his son Solomon. A man’s dying words are, historically, given extra weight. One supposes that a man’s last words will be especially important and meaningful, that he has been saving up for that moment all the wisdom he wishes to leave as a legacy. Vital unfinished business may be addressed. Blessings.
David was true to this model, charging Solomon to follow God, but then he got a few matters off his chest. We can imagine that lying there, old and feeble, he had relived significant events over and over in his mind, making note of the good and bad, wanting to make certain there would be, even after his death, appropriate responses. A general had dishonored him, requiring punitive action. Another man had helped him during his worst days and should be rewarded accordingly.
And then there was Shimei…“You know what to do.” David ignored Shimei at the time of the offense, knowing that God was at work, accepting the fact that his own misdeeds had brought trouble upon him. But his memory was long. Shimei’s hatred predated David’s problems with Absalom or his sins. He was Saul’s loyal follower, whether God was with him or not. David’s troubles had merely given him a public arena in which to vent his anger, an excuse to cast stones and hurl insults. Compared to Absalom, Shimei was small potatoes…but David remembered.
We all have benchmarks, or will eventually. No one is exempt from trials and tribulation. It is important that we respond in godly ways to those who are undergoing their own difficulties, that we not add to their pain by thoughtlessness or actual hurtfulness. It is equally important that in the midst of extreme circumstances, we find room for forgiveness for those who let us down.
I remember one such situation in my own life. At my very lowest, broken and bent to the ground, I made an easy target for the sharp-edged stones that came flying at me from directions I would never have dreamed possible. Vicious insults were spoken to my face and behind my back. I still remember them and the seering pain they caused, remember feeling as if all the air had left the room. I could hardly breathe, much less speak and confront coherently.
Have I forgiven, as Jesus commanded us to forgive? Sometimes I think I have…and perhaps at that moment, I have forgiven as much as I am able to at that moment. With one person in particular, reconciliation and restoration appear to be a real possibility. And then God peels back another layer and I realize it’s still a work in process. Just as I am a work in process. I can only cry out for grace and strength and pray that those I have hurt…the targets of my own stones…will cry out for grace to forgive me.
Monday, August 10, 2009
What an utterly ‘ug-a-ly’ day!
Mr. Sun … will you please go away?
I’m a frog , and I’m mad On my hot lily pad ,
‘Cause you’re burning my toes with your rays !
What an utterly ‘ug-al-y’ day!
Mr. Sun … come back some other day!
I like wetness and soggy –You’re toasting my body
And burning my toes with your rays !
What an utterly ‘ug-al-y’ day!
Wait a minute; I’m covered in shade …
From that dark cloud above – Hey! It’s raining a flood!
What a wet… clammy…icky…sticky…slippy…drippy…slimy…sloppy… soggy… boggy…
To you or me, a rainy day may not hold the same appeal (unless we’ve got an empty house and a good book to enjoy) but to a frog, it’s the best! In the same way, because we are all different and have different needs and desires, what’s a blessing to you may or may not be a blessing to me. We have to allow room for such differences without judging issues that, in the eternal scope of things, don’t amount to the proverbial hill of beans.
We get into trouble—and Christians are especially prone to this, I’m afraid—when we hear the Lord guiding us into one direction and take it one step…one giant leap…further. If God wants me to do this, or stop doing that, he must want everyone to, right? Not necessarily.
Some things are absolutes. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the only begotten son of the Father who lived a sinless life, offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice for the sin (and sins) of humankind once and for all so that we might have an open door back to fellowship with God, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will return again for his Bride, the Church. What he looked like, how he might dress in the 21st century, and whether or not he prefers hymns or choruses…these are peripheral things unworthy of argument or even much discussion, unless it’s very late at night and you’re sitting around with roommates munching on cold pizza.
Just before a storm comes, there’s often a wonderful feel of the air, in the smell of it. Something cool and delicious passes through, signaling change. Whether you welcome the change or not is a matter of your own preferences, but you can’t argue with the fact that something is about to happen. You can’t stop it, either.
Down through history, learned scholars who should have known better have argued about how many angels will fit on the head of a pin and other nonsense. Sacrificing truth for detail, such people still get so hung up, like Philip’s grumbling frog, on the temperature, that they are prone to miss the change in the weather. Sometimes they find a hole in the ground to hide in from the hot climate they want to escape, and end up missing the coolness of the rain that has come altogether.
We interpret the weather in different ways, but we can’t stop it. We have a choice to make when the wind turns—do we welcome it? Are we prepared for it? Can we see its beauty even if we’d rather have a cloudless afternoon? Some things never change—Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the Bible tells us in Hebrews 13—but very much in the world, in the Church, in our own lives will be in a constant state of flux. Our heart will determine our response.
For more poems by Philip Parker, contact him at email@example.com.
Monday, July 27, 2009
For that very reason, Paul urged us to offer ourselves to God:
"Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness" (Romans 6:13).
If we don’t come freely, there’s no point in coming at all. That’s the problem with coercing, forcing, or manipulating people to church “for their own good.” On the other hand, the problem with living sacrifices is that we keep crawling down off the altar! We want to live for God. Then we don’t. Then we do. Then we don’t, mirroring Paul’s quandary in Romans 7.
Controlling people isn’t in a Christian’s job description, but we try to do it nevertheless. Many people, to a certain extent, fall into what Carmen Renee Berry calls the “Messiah Trap” in her book When Helping You Is Hurting Me. We want something done, it depends on us to get it done, and therefore it doesn’t matter whose strings we have to pull in order to make it happen.
Churches are a natural draw for people who, whether consciously or not, seek positions of control. Think about our vocabulary: lord, serve, worship, submit, obey, commandments. For those with a weakness in this area, it is easy to lose sight of whom we are to obey—“God, rather than men” (Acts 5:29b).
As a teenager, I submitted to the spiritual authority of a man who had achieved master manipulator status. Blinded to all but his charisma, charm, and ability to convince me of just about anything, you can well imagine the trouble that resulted from this equation: carnal man with power + impressionable young woman = deception, sin, devastation, guilt, anger.
Perhaps because of that, my antennae are usually very sensitive to manipulation. If I get a whiff of someone trying to pull my strings, I invariably start backing away. But if I’m in a state of spiritual weakness…if my emotional tank is dry…if I’m looking to others to meet my needs rather than to my heavenly Father…I’m still in danger.
But I would have stood anyone down who said I was, in fact, codependent—that psychospeak, vague term that we bandy about when talking about, for the most part, addictions. An alcoholic husband has his own problems, but the wife can easily become another when she lies to cover his lies, makes excuses, hides his abuse of her. That kind of weakness did not…absolutely did not…resemble me.
Sure, I let people use me…aren’t we called to serve? No, I didn’t always regard my own needs as valid…wouldn’t that be selfish?
And then I “just happened” to pick up a copy of Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie, and begin reading. Just the preface convicted me! I saw, like the proverbial light bulb going off over my head, that I had allowed the problems of others—that minister’s lust and control issues, a friend’s anger, a family member’s addiction to pain medications—to control my behavior and responses. My codependency actually fueled the fire. With the family member especially, my attempts to “help” were doing anything but.
Slowly, I’m learning to detach myself from things that are not mine to control, allowing others to fail at times so that they learn to depend to God and not Ellen, realizing that if I’ve sincerely asked someone to forgive me for wrongdoing it isn’t my problem if they choose to withhold forgiveness, feeling free to say “no” whether it hurts someone’s feelings or not. A natural people-pleaser, I’m learning to instead focus on pleasing God—and one thing that pleases him is for me to control my own life under the direction of the Holy Spirit, and neither hold others responsible for my happiness, nor withhold accountability from them when they are hurtful.
We are to offer ourselves to God, not to every person or need or request that comes our way.
Friday, July 10, 2009
A number of years ago, I had the privilege of teaching at a school of ministry. My students were hungry for God, and I was constantly searching for ways to challenge them to fall more in love with Jesus and to become voices for revival in the Church. I came across a quote attributed most often to Rev. Sam Pascoe. It is a short version of the history of Christianity, and it goes like this: Christianity started in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise. Some of the students were only 18 or 19 years old…and I wanted them to understand and appreciate the import of the last line, so I clarified it by adding, "An enterprise. That's a business." After a few moments Martha, the youngest student in the class, raised her hand. I could not imagine what her question might be. I thought the little vignette was self-explanatory, and that I had performed it brilliantly. Nevertheless, I acknowledged Martha's raised hand, "Yes, Martha." She asked such a simple question, "A business? But isn't it supposed to be a body?" I could not envision where this line of questioning was going, and the only response I could think of was, "Yes." She continued, "But when a body becomes a business, isn't that a prostitute?"
Ryser goes on to say that the class was stunned into silence by the concept Martha introduced because ultimately, the answer to her question is “yes.” Ryser continued to mull it over in the coming weeks and began thinking about the differences in lovers and prostitutes. “Both do many of the same things, but a lover does what she does because she loves. A prostitute pretends to love, but only as long as you pay. Then I asked the question, ‘What would happen if God stopped paying me?”
What if?…not that God’s promises are not sure, not that he does not bless us completely and continually because of his awesome love…but let’s be painfully honest with ourselves. Why do we serve him? Do we receive his blessings as from a loving Father for his children, or do we, at some level, perceive them as wages for our service and obedience? Do we really love God, as he commanded, with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths or do we place conditions? Do we feel we deserve this or that because of what we’ve done for him? If you answer this prayer…if you come through for me…if you’ll just forgive me…
Are you ever disappointed with God? I am. He doesn’t always do what I want! If that disappointment and anger affects my relationship with him, however, I’m the one in trouble. In a marriage, a loving couple can handle disappointment and anger and move beyond it—can we move beyond it where God is concerned or do we curl up within ourselves pouting like small children, refusing to worship or relate to his people or serve because we didn’t get our way? When (not if) this happens, we are behaving not as the lovers of God we are called to be, but as common prostitutes. No money, no action.
Ryser points out that “there are no prostitutes in heaven, or in the Kingdom of God, for that matter, but there are plenty of former prostitutes in both places. Take it from a recovering prostitute when I say there is no substitute for unconditional, intimate relationship with God.”
The Church, perhaps particularly in the United States, is in grave danger of turning the Body of Christ into a business. As individuals we need to stay very soft toward the Holy Spirit, listening for his leading and correction, learning to love wholeheartedly and with abandonment regardless of what we see around us. Corporately, we need to be cautious of trendiness, of taking the truth of the Gospel and trying to make it more marketable to the masses. We can be enterprising (i.e. productive, industrious, doing all things for his glory and in excellence) without turning Christianity into an enterprise.
For the entire article by Ryser, go to www.injesus.com and search for Dr. David Ryser or “The Question that Changed My Life.”
Monday, June 29, 2009
My mother was incredulous—God had told her I’d marry another young man. Not only that, God had told him. But he hadn’t told me.
A week later, we were engaged (with my parent’s blessings). Three months later we were married. Thirty-three years, four children, a son-in-law, three grandchildren, and incredible ups and downs later, we’re still Mr. and Mrs. David Gillette.
All that to say…it’s important to hear the word of the Lord for yourself, and to act upon it.
In 1 Kings 13, we read about a man who should’ve known that. We’re told only that he was a “man of God”—and if you were going to be known for one thing, that’s a good one.
He went to King Jeroboam to deliver the word of the Lord, but it didn’t go well. When the king stretched out his hand, calling for the man’s arrest, his hand shriveled up. Amazing how a useless limb will grab your attention! The king asked the man of God to pray for him, and was healed.
“Come have dinner,” the king said. “I’ll give you a gift.”
“Not even if you offered half your kingdom.” Apparently the Lord had commanded him not to eat or drink until he arrived home by a different route.
Enter a prophet—one would assume another “man of God” with such a title, but even prophets get it wrong occasionally—who’d heard about the drama of the day. He chased the man down, inviting him to a meal. Perhaps he wanted to pick his brain about palace intrigue, or was going through a dry spell and wanted a fill-up for his spiritual tank. The man of God again refused, giving the same reason.
“But I’m a prophet too!” the old prophet said. “An angel told me to bring you home for bread and water!” The man of God let himself be dazzled by prophet’s apparent spiritual maturity, his advanced age, the smoothness and excitement of the lie. An angel…
Amazingly, as the two ate, the word of the Lord came, not to the man of God, but to the lying prophet: “The Lord says that because you defied his word to you, your body won’t be buried in the tomb of your fathers.”
Who worries about his burial place? He’d gotten a word from God to deliver to the king! So he messed up a little…what did it matter where he was buried?
As he traveled that very day, however, a lion killed him on the road. Didn’t eat him, just killed him, then stood there guarding the body. When the prophet heard what happened, he knew right away who the victim was. He retrieved the body, burying the man in his own tomb. “When I die,” he told his sons, “bury me with the man of God, for the words he spoke will come to pass.”
The point is that we can easily be swayed by people of position, title, influence, wealth, or academic superiority. The word of God, whether the written logos word in Bible form, or the personal rhema word the Holy Spirit speaks to the heart, is important. When we are certain of its application in our own lives, we need to honor it, regardless of popular opinion.
Monday, June 15, 2009
“But you don’t hate lying,” the pastor replied.
Point well taken. If we truly hate something, we usually stop. If we tolerate sin in our lives, however, we will search far and wide, high and low, for ways to justify it, skating around the possibility of harsh consequences. As speaker Doug Easterday says, Christians don’t usually fall into sin, we jump into it…like kids jumping into a pile of autumn leaves. Wheee….
It has been said that “A lie does not sacrifice a truth, but THE truth.” The Bible tells us that Satan is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). Jesus is called the Truth (John 14:6). “Thou shalt not lie” is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16). It is obvious, then, that people of faith are to be honest. Honesty isn’t just the best policy; it’s the only policy for Christians. 100% honesty, 100% of the time. No using stamps from the office for personal mail just this once. No “white lie” about one’s whereabouts last Thursday evening.
Is honesty a problem in the church? I dare say it is. Perhaps attendance numbers are inflated on a report, or a sermon is appropriated, word for word, from the Internet without giving honor where it is due (Romans 13:7). Perhaps someone speaks an untruth to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. But when we discover that a brother or sister has lied to us, we feel let down. If he or she lied about that, what else can we not trust?
I used to pride myself (pride being the red flag here) on my honesty. A friend once called me “stupid honest” because he thought my commitment to telling the truth went beyond reason—even when I would get in trouble, when truth would hurt someone, etc. Maybe I told the truth, but I was not a person of truth—in fact, I was quite deceptive in the way I manipulated questions and answers, or followed the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit.
One example from my teenaged years –my parents set a rule that I was not to be alone with my boyfriend at our house or at his house…so we went to his grandmother’s (vacant) house! I could “honestly” say I obeyed the rule, but clearly, honesty was not what was on my mind at the time.
As I’ve walked a little further down the narrow road that keeps getting narrower, the Holy Spirit has shone his light with increasing intensity on that tendency, or at least willingness, to hedge while also teaching me about the difference between facts and truth. The standard hasn’t changed—never changes—but the degree of personal accountability has.
Recently I had a fresh lesson: While in town, I realized that I had a government check of my daughter’s from recent mail which needed cashing. She hadn’t signed it yet, but since I have power of attorney I thought nothing of signing it, then endorsing it with my own name. Everything would have been copacetic had the teller not been so specific. “Did she sign the back?” she asked…quite efficiently. I replied in the affirmative…and beat myself up about all the way home. I tried to rationalize that my daughter wanted the cash, had no problem with my signing it, etc., etc., but the fact that I had been asked, pointblank, and…lied, let’s face it…continued to nag me.
I don’t know about you, but I live with too much external stress I can do nothing whatsoever about, to endure one iota of personally-generated stress I can offload by a simple action. I want a clear conscience—even if the particulars don’t really matter, my heart DOES matter. The next time I was in the bank, I took the teller aside, explained the situation, and apologized. “As a Christian, I believe it’s important to be honest,” I told her, “and I wasn’t completely honest with you.”
Whether she thought I was noble, or stupid, or an alien dropped off from another planet, I have no idea, nor do I really care. Clearing my conscience was for ME (and to please my Father), not for anyone else sake. (Of course, the fact that I work for a church and am known to attend another could have also reflected poorly at a corporate level, as could any wrong action by a particular “Christian” reflect on other Christians in general).
Keep short accounts with God—why let that nagging sensation of wrongdoing have time to fester? We’ll always be learning, always blow it, always have new areas for that Holy Spirit spotlight to shine. The idea is to acknowledge…then act. Over and done with, now on to the next lesson.
The other side of the truth issue? The difference between facts and truth…I’ll leave that for another time.
Some portions of this blog first appeared in Baaad Sheep—When God’s People Let You Down by Ellen Gillette (Carepoint Publishing, 2007), ISBN-13:978-0-9792-0893-5.
Monday, June 1, 2009
I’ve been at battle in the only clump of trees on our property, having built a home on what used to be a tobacco field. One little clump of trees (some old and tall, however), with a pile of bricks from an old chimney and vines of such number that they call to mind Genesis 15’s promise to Abram: "Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to number them...So shall thy seed be...” I chop down one, only to find five more hiding under a branch.
Day One: armed only with a hoe, gardening gloves, and no little amount of anger, I attacked. The result? Three good-sized piles of vines, a broken hoe, and a road map of bleeding scratches on arms and legs.
Day Two: new hoe, new hedge trimmers, suede gloves. Better results, less injuries to hands. Arms and legs show further abuse. A bottle of weed killer held in reserve for drier, less windy conditions.
Day Three: Progress beginning to be evident (i.e. husband noticed).
Day Four: hasn’t happened at time of writing due to other obligations. Strategizing sessions have determined to add knee-high boots to armor, but decision made against burning the suckers out for fear of incinerating “friendlies.”
The enemy? Ironically named smilacaceae, perhaps to lull attackers into a false sense of security, they’re commonly known as cat briers, greenbriers, and a few other names the pastor would probably edit out. At any rate, they make me do anything but smile. Woody, thorny vines, they grow quickly, wrapping around anything available, and would, no doubt, choke out all life were it not for the seasonal interruption of winter that kills them back as well.
The thing is, they look good! Lush, verdant additions to the panorama. As long as you leave them alone, they fill in the empty spaces with greenery at an alarming rate…making the entire area inaccessible to all but the smallest of critters and insects.
A spiritual application cries out to be made.
There are thorny vines in all our lives-- habits, attitudes, patterns, unnecessary activities, even people, who infiltrate the environment, insinuating themselves into our time and energy, robbing us of our power and effectiveness. They may even look helpful and attractive, just as the vines do…from a distance.
Wishing they weren’t there, complaining about their existence, moaning about the should’ve’s and could’ve’s will do diddly-squat to stopping the onslaught. Dancing around them with flip-flops and pitiful cotton gloves will only end up with a bloody mess (our blood, too). Sometimes we need boots. Sharp instruments such as the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Killer chemicals such as repentance. Righteous anger’s power from the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead, at work in us.
There is a time for Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild. But there’s also a time for the unleashing of God’s wrath on what is ungodly and harmful in our lives, even if the cost is personal: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29). Just as I am compelled to attack those vines, so should we be compelled by God’s Spirit to remove the sin and all things counter-productive to his purposes:
“Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfect or of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12: 1b-2, NRSV).
Total eradication is the goal. Out, out! foul vine.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
It’s so painfully simple. If we truly believe that God exists, we must also accept the fact that he can do whatever he wants—he doesn’t need our approval. He doesn’t ask for permission before messing with our stuff. He doesn’t…when you get right down to it…owe us anything. Not a single thing. He’s God. For that reason alone he deserves our obedience. Our worship. Our time. Our bank accounts. Our children. Our thoughts.
He’s GOD. Let that just sink in for a minute.
Simple, I said. Not easy. Give me complex-yet-easy any day. What we have, however, in the whole God-faith arena is simple-but-difficult. We live within a culture where every invention and product is designed to make life less stressful, more self-satisfying. At the same time, our God calls us to follow him in the opposite direction. Counterculture, lay down our lives, suffer, forgive our offenders, praise him when the shit hits the fan. We may complain—we DO complain, and quite loudly at times—but that doesn’t mean we’re any less stuck.
But oh! How anguished, our complaints. How pious, our horror as evil flourishes. When someone we love doesn’t get healed, how we fume. When misunderstood or persecuted, how we pout! Shaking impotent fists at heaven as jobs disappear and marriages disintegrate, we question God’s integrity and fairness. Those are dangerous thoughts, friends, a MRSA infection within the Body of Christ. Take a swab to those words and watch what grows in the Petri dish, a foul stench which at the molecular level mimics Lucifer’s own cry…”I would be god.”
If I were God, no pedophile would molest a child, no war would rage. If I were God, there would be no Aids, no cancer, no homeless. Every baby would be wanted, every worker find a job. If I were God, my son would not be dead.
But I am not God. You are not God. God does exist (it was C. S. Lewis who said it was more important that heaven exists than that any of us reach it)—and he can, absolutely, do whatever he wants. If we’re convinced that God actually has “the whole world in his hands,” we either relinquish the right to explanations and reasons, to receive anything in return… or we meander back and forth between his camp and the world’s, depending on the perceived climate of current circumstances.
We’d have preferred a Calgon Christ to “take me away” from trials and tribulations, God as the ultimate stress-reliever—ignoring biblical passages that warn he’s come to bring a sword. We order bubbles of protection and comfort, and get miffed when he ignores the memo. We’ve grown comfortable with a sliver of God each Sunday. We were raised on Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild when the reality is a God who is unwavering in his holiness, relentless in his pursuit of us, often inconceivably, unbelievably unfazed by what we want at that particular moment. He never sends out questionnaires to ascertain humankind’s deepest desires. He doesn’t wait for a focus group to voice its opinions. He has no respect for the boundaries we place around people or nations or hearts, nor for the boxes in which we keep trying to put him. He’s God! No matter what happens. Gotta’ love him (we’re commanded) but if you’ve never faced a situation in which you also hate him…wait for it. It’ll come.
We want, so desperately, for it to be about us, but it isn’t. It never will be. Yes, God promises to bless, love, protect, etc. But we cling to his promises like magic formulas, not realizing that earthly eyes aren’t sharp enough for the fine print, the unspoken addendum to every one of them from Genesis to Revelation that says, in effect, “unless I choose otherwise.” We pray “Thy will be done” and then whine when it is.
It’s time we look both heaven and hell squarely in the eye and say, “Give it your best shot—I’m still God’s. Though he slay me, yet will I serve him.” If we don’t praise him and follow him at our point of desperation, then… when the sun comes out and the birds are singing, …our praises may fall on divinely deaf ears.
The phrase “spiritual warfare” is no newcomer to the Christian vocabulary. The reality of a spiritual world we cannot see with human eyes was written of in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and ever since, from Tertullian to Frank Peretti. Angels, including the fallen angels we call demons, exist and have existed since before Creation—they haven’t simply disappeared because modern theology became uncomfortable with them.
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." …Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Because there is a very fine line between striving for personal excellence and demanding excellence from everyone around us…between achieving godly goals and acquiring ungodly pride. I was responsible for too many stubbed toes, dragging loved ones along, occasionally watching a friend fall off the precipice while I determinedly kept my eyes on the summit.
I don’t know about you, but there are days when I’d like to trade in this tightrope I’m inching along on for something a little wider—say, the Autobahn. In a Mercedes convertible. Going 100 miles an hour. And then I remember where I’m headed.
Because love is the fulfillment of the Law, God might have just told Moses to tell the children of Israel “Love one another”—which would have taken 4 seconds instead of 40 days. Jesus did tell his disciples that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves…a statement that covers a lot of ground. It’s the ultimate “take-away” statement. If we get that, and get it into our hearts so that we begin to live it out on a daily basis, we’ve gotten it all.
There are a few other all-encompassing passages:
Micah 6:8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you… To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
What is good? What does God require? He tells us, plain and simple. Act with justice. Show mercy. Walk in humility.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Why are you on the earth? What is your purpose, your duty? An entire industry has been created surrounding the 40 Days of Purpose teaching, and here it is in a scriptural nutshell: fear God and obey him.
Mark Twain is credited with saying, “It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” People argue about the finer points of theology, eschatology, philosophy, the jots and tittles of every word, get their academic knickers in a twist over obscure passages and possible interpretations. But most of the Bible is quite clear. Painfully clear, I would say. And we have no excuse for not putting it into practice. Reasons…there are always reasons…but no excuse.
We might prefer a more specific Bible with a complete index to look up the appropriate response to, say, a co-worker who asks for our views on the rapture or the best particular procedure for disciplining a five-year-old who clogs the toilet with Star Wars figures. Why do I feel this way today? How can I make that person forgive me? We want quick fixes, but life as a follower of Jesus is a process, not a single point in time.
Ever wonder why children enjoy cartoons so much? Cartoons show and tell the story without getting bogged down in details. In a way, the Bible does the same thing, in a way. We aren’t told every detail about life, but we’re given the story of what God wants. Be loving. Be just. Be humble.
Just do it.
In terms of severity, I had come off relatively easy by comparison to Job (I never scraped myself with a broken shard of pottery—tempting, but no). In number, however, we were too close for comfort. Literally from my head to my feet, small painful boils—a noxious staph infection—popped up with alarming regularity. A round of antibiotics seemed to take care of them until we returned to the United States. Months later, perhaps a year even, a boil appeared on one of the most painful areas possible—my hand. A nurse urged me to get treatment, warning that with little room for the infection to spread, I could otherwise lose the hand altogether. Yuck!
When one round of medicine didn’t knock the latest outbreak out of my system, a dermatologist put me on long-term antibiotics. Three months of that and nary a boil showed up since.
Until last week. High enough on a leg that sitting became very. Very. Uncomfortable. My nurse practitioner said she’d treat it like MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph. No big deal—except that my infant brother died from a staph infection forty-nine years ago. Except that my job calls for me to sit for several hours a day. Except that David was counting on me to help him with renovations when I came home in the afternoons. Except that I felt awful, given to chills and fits of tears. I took a day off and tried to remain horizontal, holding hot compresses to my leg, generally feeling sorry for myself, and watching more television than I’ve ever done in my life.
I also revisited the poetry of Asaph (Psalms 73-83) in my state of woe. What an encourager he must have been. Over and over he questions the state of the world, the seeming success of the ungodly, the desperation of his own people, yet inevitably there comes a line something like “But you, oh God…” followed by accounts of his glory and might and faithfulness.
Trials come and go. Western Christianity has been spoiled and lulled into complacency by the idea that we alone are immune to the tribulation others endure today around the globe. We’ve bought into a kind of “Calgon Christianity”—Jesus, take me away! Take me away from ugliness, pain, ….discipline.
According to Hebrews 12:11, all discipline seems painful at the time but “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11, NRSV; emphasis mine).Apparently we can fail to receive the intended benefit if we fail to receive the training. Not a good idea.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the painful red place on my leg, I definitely want to get it the first time around the ole’ discipline mountain. Do I want every trace of sin out of my life as badly as I want to be rid of all traces of this infection? Does it serve as a reminder to prevent becoming so physically drained that my body is unable to fight germs? Or perhaps, like Asaph, I need to remember that despite the things we must endure in this life (and a boil certainly isn’t the worst thing any of us has faced) “But you, oh God…”
He is still God. Still on the throne. Still awesome in power and holiness. Still in control. Still my King and Lord.