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Monday, March 29, 2010

March 29, 2010 The "S" Word

Years ago, our family was invited to vacation with owners of a home on Scotland Cay in the Bahamas. Snorkeling in the crystal clear ocean was incredible—everything so colorful and vibrant. Obviously in the open sea, there is always the potential for danger as well; so that the younger ones didn’t get frightened, it was suggested that we refer to shark sightings as spotting an “S” fish.

Although it’s a cultural taboo—people in other parts of the world where it’s not considered a “bad” word use it routinely—you’ve probably instructed your children not to use a certain “S” word. Why? Because you don’t want your child’s teacher or other parents knowing that (1) you use the word yourself in times of frustration or pain, or (2) allow your children to watch television where it pops up frequently. Kids don’t usually say things they never hear!

And not even horrendous side-effects and possible arrest dissuades amateur and professional athletes from taking “Vitamin S” (steroids) to enhance their look or performance.

There is another S word that carries negative connotations even among Christians, although it comes straight off the pages of the Bible and straight from the heart of God: Submission. Because the idea of submission to authority has been used to manipulate and control others, it’s no wonder some people roll their eyes at the mere mention.

For example, Paul’s directive in Ephesians 5, and Peter’s in 1 Peter 2 are two of the verses historically pulled out whenever there is conflict within a marriage:

22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5, NIV).

1 In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any [of them] are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2 as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior…
6 Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (1 Peter 3, NIV).

The implication is sometimes that if a woman will submit, everything will be hunky-dory. Wrong…husbands have instructions as well - to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (in my opinion, a much more difficult concept).

However, the Bible doesn’t make one party’s obedience to God conditional on the other party’s. It doesn’t say, “Husbands, love your wives when they are submissive” or “Wives, submit to your husbands if they are loving.” Each one has a specific command from God, and we are to submit to him first.

Early in our marriage I remember asking my husband to pray about whether or not I should help with the youth group at our church. “Pray about it yourself,” he said. “You can hear from God.” This was important because as a teenager I was part of a church that walked through a very strong submission teaching—strong in a worldly, carnal way, not a spiritual one. A group of people who sincerely wanted to submit to God and honor him was led down a path of error. Trust was abused to an alarming degree, yet God protected his people because of their hearts; I would venture to guess that the majority of that congregation is still serving God today.

My husband knew instinctively that I might have a tendency to blindly revere his authority, even as I had been taught to blindly follow church leadership. He made it clear that although he took his role as my husband seriously, he would not become a substitute for God himself.

Submission is God’s idea, and his ideas are always loving, and best. Just because Satan is constantly trying to twist God’s ideas and use them for harm doesn’t mean that the idea itself is anything but pure and holy.

Submission is about more than marriage, obviously. And there will always be challenges—our government is not perfect. Our church leaders are not perfect. Our husbands are not perfect. Our parents are not perfect. The world systems which we must obey (or suffer the consequences) on a daily basis are not perfect. God, however, is perfect. His ways are higher than our ways, we see in Isaiah 55. His thoughts are not our thoughts. He uses his government to teach things like humility, honor, respect, love, compassion…

Not a bad word in the bunch.

Permission to reprint with acknowledgment of source.

Monday, March 15, 2010

March 15, 2010 Less is More

Maybe we’re going about it wrong.

By “we” I mean the Church. By “it” I mean the programs geared toward growth.

In Judges 6 we find the nation of Israel in trouble. Because of their sin, the Lord has handed them over to the Midianites for a period of punishment living in poverty and fear. It’s a familiar pattern in the Old Testament (as in our own lives)—sin, refusal to repent, consequences, repentance, deliverance and blessing, sin, refusal to repent, etc.

Gideon is confronted by an angel who appears as a man, as he works in hiding. Instead of pointing out the obvious (that he’s afraid and living in defeat), the angel calls him a “mighty warrior” and says that God is with him. Not only that, he commissions him to deliver the entire nation. This would impress most of us, but Gideon is so down-trodden by his circumstances that he has trouble believing it. His clan is small. He’s the youngest in his family. But when he asks for a sign, the angel is very convincing. His faith restored, Gideon obeys in a relatively small act of defiance—he pulls down an altar of Baal.

Before he’ll take on the entire nation of Midian, however, he needs to be really, really sure God will have his back. He lays out a sheep fleece and asks God to make it wet in the midst of dry ground. Done. Just to make sure, he lays it out again and asks God to make the fleece dry and the ground wet. Done. (God is so patient with us, isn’t he?)

Filled with confidence and faith, Gideon musters 32,000 men to fight with him. It’s not as many as he would like, but it will have to do. Wrong—God tells him to send home anyone who is afraid. Gideon’s probably thinking, Who wouldn’t be?! Amazingly, he still ends up with 10,000. Still too many. God engineers a test whereby the number drops to 300. That’s not even a tithe of the original group. It’s a tithe of the tithe! Despite this, God uses Gideon and his army of 300 to rout 120,000, and the eventually successful revolt against Midian is on.

Why such a little army? Judges 7:2 says, “The Lord said to Gideon, ‘The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’”

We’ve been called to evangelize the world. Tell sinners to repent. Pray for more laborers for the harvest. God desires that all men will be saved. Etc. Etc. But maybe…just maybe…sometimes less is more. Maybe our attempts to get bigger and bigger building programs and more numbers and fill the seats and pack the house have been, at least in one respect, counter-productive. Maybe we have watered down the gospel to make it more palatable so much so that it fails to quench the real thirsts in peoples’ lives. Maybe we’ve lost focus on the task of building God’s kingdom and are tempted to think that our “own hand” has been responsible for building our own kingdoms.

Maybe we don’t need more soldiers in God’s army, but better soldiers. Maybe we don’t need to make Christianity so socially pleasing and acceptable, but use the same tactics as Jesus, who said things like:

· “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Matthew 5:30).
· “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6).
· “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
· “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51)!
· “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
· “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

Jesus sometimes seems to have gone out of his way to deliver a hard word, a statement few would understand, a command that no one in his right mind would rush to obey. He chose to make it difficult to come to him. “For the gate is narrow and road is hard that leads to life; and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Following Jesus…being a true Christian…is simple, but it perhaps it shouldn’t be as easy as the Church in 2010 sometimes makes it out to be, at least in the United States. Fellow believers around the world (a relatively smaller number than in attendance at mega-churches of the West) who face persecution and hardship, even death, on a daily basis, might find little in common with our level of complacency and comfort every Sunday morning, but I have a gut feeling that those beleaguered “300” are accomplishing far more.

Of course, it’s not really about the numbers at all, is it? It’s what’s in the hearts of those who come to the battle.
Permission to use with acknowledgement of source. Quotations from New Revised Standard Version of the Bible

Monday, March 1, 2010

March 1, 2010 Led into the Wilderness

According to Wikipedia, “Lent, in Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitance, almsgiving, and self-denial— for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Conventionally Lent is described as being forty days long, although Sundays are not counted (songs and focus are more somber and reflective during Lent in many churches, but each Sunday throughout the year is considered a smaller-scaled Easter, commemorating the resurrection). The forty days represent the time that, according to the Bible
, Jesus spent in the wilderness before the beginning of his public ministry where he tempted by Satan.

I’ve been thinking about being in the wilderness lately, probably because I’m going to a James McDonald Bible study (“Lord, Change My Attitude”) that deals with “wilderness” attitudes and focuses primarily on the 40 year wanderings of the children of Israel. Recently, we looked at the attitude of doubt, which can disguise itself in different ways. One of these is withdrawal—from loved ones, from church, from the Word, from God.

Because doubt can be so deadly—just a hop, skip, and jump away from turning into despair, McDonald points out—we need to be around people of faith. Withdrawal helps keep doubt alive; being among those who will consistently and persistently speak words of encouragement and faith into our lives soon drives doubt out of the darkness and into the light that will dispel it completely.

When a person withdraws, then, it is easy to make assumptions about their spiritual maturity or present walk with God. I submit to you that this is a dangerous assumption (as most are, in the final analysis).

The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness because of their disobedience and unbelief, but what about Jesus? Scripture tells us that he was “led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry” (Luke 4:1-2, NIV).

Did you get that? The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. He wasn’t there by accident, or by Satan’s invitation. He wasn’t there because he was in a snit or had gotten mad at the disciples. He hadn’t disobeyed, choosing to run from conviction. The Holy Spirit led him into a dry, rocky place where he was alone. He led him there to do without normal interaction with others and normal sustenance from food. Jesus, fully God and fully man, experienced weakness in the flesh—he was hungry. His strength was sapped.

At his lowest point, Satan arrived, hoping to trip the Son of God up—which just shows you how ridiculous he can be. With every temptation, Jesus countered with the Word of God (since he IS the Word, this is understandable…what boggles the mind is that Satan thought he had a chance!).

There is encouragement for us in this account on so many levels, but what it speaks to me at this particular moment, fresh on the heels of hearing someone talk of another person’s “devastating” withdrawal is that we should be very careful not to judge another person’s wilderness experience.

A good friend of mine was in and out of the wilderness for some time, but was, throughout the experience, able to focus on, worship, and trust in God. Certainly it was a trying “dark night of the soul” for this individual, loving friends, a caring family…and yet, God spoke throughout the darkness, teaching new lessons there than couldn’t, apparently, be learned in the light. There had been a rather stubborn dependence on others, rather than depending solely on God. Things—good things, even—had drained spiritual energy a jealous Father wanted spent in other directions.

Humans have a tendency to equate perkiness with blessing, but scripture clearly reveals that even those with the deepest relationships with God—David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul…Jesus himself…went through their own wildernesses at God’s bidding.

Lord, help us not to judge others when they withdraw or seem lost in the desert, knowing that if you lead us there one day, we will also respond better to a cup of cold water than to harsh opinions. Let us be faithful to pray for them that they will learn quickly all that you have to teach them. And let us be mindful of attitudes and actions that might force us into the desert…may the only wildernesses we wander in be those led by the Holy Spirit, for your purposes and your glory.

Permission to use with acknowledgement of source.