Friday, January 30, 2009
I’m thinking of a hurricane. It destroys everything in its path, tearing things to pieces or carrying them off into oblivion. But in the “eye” of the hurricane there is a great calm. Meteorologists surely have an explanation for this, but how it works is a mystery to me. Another mystery is the peace a Christian can have in the midst of an emotional or relational storm. When a couple is experiencing continual strife, one spouse may be giving his or her all to maintain an atmosphere of rarefied sanctification – and yet, the storm only intensifies. Kindness is not always returned in kind. In fact, the kindest Man who ever lived got crucifixion as thanks for all the mouths He fed and bodies He healed and hearts He touched. A husband or a wife can be like Jesus, and still be “shafted" by the one he or she is trying to love, to forgive, or receive forgiveness from. So, where do you go from here? Today’s verse makes it clear: In the face of an ever intensifying hurricane you must get into its peaceful "eye," by keeping your eye on the Prince of Peace. He tells us to "pursue peace with all men" (Hebrews 12:14), and sometimes pursuing peace means not pursuing a loved one. If your spouse wants to leave, let him leave. Anything you say or do at this point will only heighten the storm: pleading to reconsider; laying on “desertion guilt;” analyzing motives; criticizing attitudes – these tactics will only serve to confirm his decision to leave. We can almost hear his tirade: “Who wants to hang around a wife who makes me feel and do my worst, when other people bring out the best in me?" (This is the flesh talking, of course, or the world -- or the Devil!) Peace at this point comes by remembering the only source of ultimate fulfillment, and that is nothing or no one on earth. It’s Jesus! If you have Him, you have joy, and victory, a sure hope of heaven someday, and resources for living today. And on top of it all, you have the promise and provision of His peace, right in the eye of the hurricane of your shattered life!
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Reading I Corinthians is like reading yesterday's newspaper (or tabloid!) We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that marital strife, separation and divorce have a long and colorful history! Yes, people were not so spiritual in those old Bible days that they never broke their marriage vows. The apostle Paul paints for us the familiar scenario of a mixed marriage. But to be married to an unbeliever and marrying one are two different things. In the first century Christianity was brand new, so nearly every marriage was between two non-Christians. But then the gospel hit town and people got saved. Not everyone, of course, and as often as not the wife would come to faith apart from her husband, or vice-versa. Whenever a third party is introduced into a marriage, doom looms, right? We can almost hear the first century husband’s complaint: “Everything was great until HE came in, and you started giving your first love to HIM instead of to me. Well, I don't like it – I'm outta here!” Christians today have far less justification for this problem because we know marrying an unbeliever is a sure seed of destruction (see II Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what fellowship has light with darkness?"). But it still happens. And when it does, what are you going to do? File for a divorce? Why not take the Bible cure instead. Today's verse gives the first step. It's not an action, so much as an environment. A husband who is walking with Jesus – praying, loving, giving and serving as only a Christian empowered by the Holy Spirit can do – is going to be a blessing to everyone around him. Same with a godly wife. Though she loves Jesus first, she's going to love her man the way God intended, and he's going to notice, and wonder, “Where did that came from?” She will “sanctify” her husband. Not that this saves him, but when even one spouse is a Christian, the entire home is cleansed, protected and blessed. And that is the first step in fixing a broken marriage: get the sanctification going – and then let God take it from there.
Revelation 3:20 pictures Jesus outside the heart’s door waiting to be invited in. If we’re not careful we can get the false impression of a milquetoast Savior timidly begging entrance, like a salesmen hoping to get a foot in the door so he can demonstrate his product! And too many evangelists make just such an appeal: “Oh sinner, won’t you give Jesus a chance!” – as if He were one of many options for us to examine and try out whenever we might be of a mind to bend low enough to favor Him with our attention! What a woefully inadequate and inaccurate picture! The story of the prodigal son gives the correct perspective: a starving, sin-sick young man, having wandered far from home to wallow in the filth of the world, is finally ravaged by it and thrown out with the trash. In such a state he comes to his senses and humbly returns to his Father, where he begs for, and graciously receives, forgiveness and restoration. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn.” This is the only way we can come into God’s presence: on our faces in shame and repentance. Have you ever hitchhiked? You stand out there on the roadside, feeling like a starving, naked beggar, avoiding eye contact with drivers who, you suppose, are suspecting you to be a deranged rapist or serial killer! This is the right way to consider the meeting of the sinner with the Savior – except too many people make Jesus the shame-faced hitch-hiker while the unbeliever eyes Him with suspicion, waiting for Him to prove that He is not just one more disappointing charlatan or religious hoax. Guess what: as long as you are in the driver’s seat, calling the shots, you will never meet God! But reverse the roles, and you’ll have it right: WE are the lowly hitchhikers, and HE is the merciful driver. It is mankind that is weighed in the balances and found wanting, not God! Because we are sinners, we “come short of the glory of God.” So we must go to Him, call on Him. Yes, Jesus calls to us, too, and knocks on our heart’s door, for we can only say yes to Him if He first says yes to us. But let’s be done with this foolish nonsense that puts God on the defensive, as if He has to prove anything. Our sin is proof enough that WE are the beggars, desperately in need of a second chance, an embrace of mercy, a kiss of compassion. And HE is our gracious Father, quick to run and meet us – on our way back to Him!
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
This favorite Bible verse is often used to urge UNBELIEVERS to invite Christ into their lives. But astute Bible teachers point out that this is a faulty interpretation, since the verses before and after are all about the relationship between Jesus and His CHURCH. A dependable rule of Bible interpretation is: “A text without a context is a pretext.” Nevertheless, it’s no pretext to say that Christ calls out to all –- to the lost world of Christ-rejecters right along with the miserable world of arrogant religionists –- for we hear His beckoning voice not only in the pages of Scripture but in the quiet places of our heart. Still, we are glad to know that Revelation 3:20 is specifically for us Christians, so we snuggle down with our Bibles and a hot cup of coffee to hear the sweet words of our Gentle Shepherd! But the comfort soon fades, as we read some pretty harsh words of admonition directed at a particular body of believers, those Lukewarm Laodiceans. They weren’t vile sinners, just complacent ones. Their peaceful, struggle-free lives gave them the illusion that they had arrived spiritually. But Jesus tells them just how far from pleasing God they actually were and, to make His point, uses a pretty vivid metaphor: “You make me want to throw up!” (How would you feel if someone you loved said that to you?) “Well, enough of Revelation 3!” we say. “Let’s mosey on over to John 3, or maybe Psalm 23!” No, please! Stay a moment! Hear Him out, as He continues: “Those I love I discipline. I’m not your Judge, condemning you; I’m your loving Father, calling to you, waiting for you to return to Me, longing to rejoice with a prodigal son who’s finally come home.” But the prodigal lives of most Christians match more that of the older son, for who among us can say we’ve never thought or spoken like him, or like the Pharisee in the temple: “I thank You, Lord, that I’m not like these dirty sinners I have to rub shoulders with day after day!” The Laodiceans were “older brothers” – Pharisees of the first order. But how different are we who hover and hobnob in the holy huddles that dot the planet today? Jesus' rebuke is surely to us as well. He urges us to hear His knock; beckons to us to seek His face; and pleads with us to open wide our closed hearts, that He may come in to us, “to forgive our sin and heal our land” (II Chronicles 7:14). But He waits to be invited. Jesus will not break down the door and barge in. He’s a perfect Gentleman! Will you not invite Him in…today?
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Remember the Ray Stevens song, "Everything is beautiful in its own way..."? Those words could make us feel a bit conflicted: does he mean literally EVERYTHING is beautiful, even things like disease and evil and death? Well of course he doesn't mean ugly things like that, for the song goes on to say, "...like the starry summer night, or a snow covered winter's day." Okay, so only beautiful things are beautiful, right? Yes, but why state something so obvious? Maybe if the songwriter had given a wider context of the Bible quote to his text, it would make more sense. Let's do that now. In His formation and plans for the world God indeed did make everything beautiful. After each creative act, "God saw that it was good." And He didn't just get things started only to abandon us, for the Bible says, again quoting God, "I know the plans that I have for you, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11), "and I will never leave you or forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). Men tend to credit their own cleverness for the good things in their lives, while blaming God for all their troubles (like insurance companies calling a natural disaster "an act of God"). But just the opposite is true: God is the Author of all good. Anything less than good is a counterfeit of it, and a desecration of it, and those things originate from rebellious creatures, not a benevolent Creator. But God, speaking through Solomon, tells us that He placed man in a time/space continuum where all people, things and events have their own unique place and purpose. "All good things must come to an end" we say. Indeed, ALL things have a "half-life": a pre-determined beginning and end. The NAS renders this verse, "God has made everything APPROPRIATE in its time." That may be the best definition of the word BEAUTIFUL. Oh that we could learn to submit to God's timing! BUT...even though we are subject to the constraints of time, this verse also says that God has placed inside of every human being an instinctive longing to break free from the bonds of both time and space. Yes, He has planted in you and me thoughts of, and a desperate desire for, something else -- something more. We tell ourselves to be content with such as we have, and that admonition has its purpose -- but please, don't tell me that this is all there is...not when God is whispering in my heart that there is a glorious eternity awaiting, when I will break free from the surly bonds of earth, and of death, and fly away home! This still small voice of God speaks heaven to us all -- and Jesus died for all, in order to take us there!
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Saul of Tarsus was a fanatic. A new religion had touched down. He saw it as a potential threat to the peace of Jerusalem, a counterfeit belief with a leader claiming equality with God. (No wonder He had been crucified!) And so, Saul determined to crush this new cult – nip it in the bud, kill it before it multiplied. A fanatic sees things oh so clearly. He has one mind and purpose. And yet, he is not so much a thinker as a doer. He has a zeal for change and he is dissatisfied until progress is under way. No wonder, then, that we find this young Pharisee single-handedly rounding up these “cultists,” doing to them whatever was necessary to insure they would never again practice or propagate their poisonous doctrine. Fanaticism, like faith, is only a means to an end, and therefore only as good as its object. Saul was a desperate fanatic, a “fan” of the Law of Moses. But he was blind to the truth: surrounded by the hot light of God, yet still engulfed in cold, spiritual darkness. Later he wrote, “Their minds were hardened, and when Moses is read a veil lies over their heart (II Cor. 3:14-15). Paul knew whereof he was speaking, for he had been there himself…until that day on the Damascus road, when a curious thing happened: just as the wicked sinners of Sodom were pierced clean through by fireballs of brimstone out of heaven, so this self-righteous sinner was struck to the ground by a missile of pure light shot straight out of Heaven. He was instantly blinded, but as in the case of all who lose one sense, another was super sensitized. There was a voice. His friends couldn’t make it out, but now he had 20-20 hearing: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And although Saul remained completely sightless for some weeks, it is amazing how useful his eyes became during this time: He couldn’t see a thing, but still Jesus said to Him, “I have appeared to you” (16). In his blindness He saw the Lord clearly, with the eyes of faith, for “when a man turns to the Lord, the veil is lifted” (II Cor. 3:16). Then Jesus said, “I am sending you to be a witness to the Gentiles, to open their eyes…” (18). “Open their eyes, Lord? Wait a minute, mine are still glued tightly shut!” But it was okay, because as his physical retinas remained on holiday, his spiritual optical nerves became sensitized to the truths of God, to the point where he could conclude his testimony before the Romans by calling what had happened to him a vision. So with us. The next time we lose something of great value – health, a dear loved one, a cherished possession – let us take it as a heavenly vision. Maybe God is blinding us to these lesser things so that we can catch a glimpse of Him!
A friend of mine went to the blood bank to give blood. A noble thing to do. I’m not saying he’s exactly cavalier about it, but he’s done it many times before, so after a short rest he sauntered over to the restroom. And that’s where it happened: nearly losing consciousness, he managed to get himself down on the floor…and there he sat for 10 or 15 minutes, too weak to stand, to crawl, even to call out. He was finally rescued, helped into a chair, and given some juice. In relating the story to me he said, “I think I now have a little idea of how Jesus must have felt when He was being crucified. Oh, I can’t relate to the excruciating pain He endured, from the nails, the crown of thorns, and the lacerations on His back. But this feeling of ‘losing it' caused by a loss of blood – well, I just had a taste of that, and let me tell you, it was awful!” In His MIND Jesus knew He was dying, to be sure. And He knew it in His HEART, too, for dying was the whole reason for His coming: to literally die, in our place, for our sins, the just for the unjust, the unblemished Lamb for a sinful world of men. But now He was beginning to feel it, in His BODY, this eerie sensation brought on by the loss of blood. Fighting to maintain consciousness, He must have felt the life literally draining out of Him as the blood steadily flowed from His many wounds. He was human, of course, so He had to sense it: “I’m dying, I’m actually dying, for since there’s nothing to stop the flow of my blood, there’s nothing to stop the life from going out of my body.” In those hours on the cross, Jesus managed to speak only seven times, mostly just fragments of sentences. My friend said now he knows at least a little bit about that: “With no strength to cry out for help the fear and panic just washed over me.” What an insight into what our Savior suffered…for you, for me! But there is another way that we can – and must – feel what Jesus felt. We don’t have to go to the blood bank for this one. No, we just go to the cross – our cross this time. We must take it up – Jesus said so. And the life: our plans, our proficiencies, our pleasures, will all begin to drain from our veins, and we will find ourselves sitting on the floor, in a quiet panic, unable to move or speak. But that’s good. Now Jesus has us right where He wants us. And in His time He comes to replace our emptiness with His fullness, our silly toys with his sacred joys, our bright shiny beads with His endless abundance! When’s the last time we gave blood like this?
Saturday, January 24, 2009
The apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, and reasoned as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things” (I Corinthians 13:11). While just a lad, Daniel was carried away from his homeland and family by the Babylonians. But then he and a few others were hand-picked from among the captives to be trained for high service in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Their faces were stripped of Judean dirt, their bodies stripped of Hebrew clothing, and their Jewish identities stripped away with changed names. All these things the boys endured without protest. But then one day the brain washing commenced, not just into a new culture but into a new morality. The boys’ silence ended. Daniel spoke up, not in defiance but with an assertive appeal, informing his trainers that he would not be able to comply with the diet he was being served. He knew that the moment he gave in he would be turning against everything he believed in and stood for. Up to this point Daniel was just a boy, but he became a man that day, when he put childish things away, when he decided to make decisions for himself, in line with his convictions. To be a child means to operate on the basis of meeting your own primal needs of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Adult authorities make decisions for you and you more or less comply, since they are presumably older and wiser and know right from wrong better than you do. To be a man is to understand that what others may expect or prescribe may not be right, or good for you, and in such cases you must disagree and walk away. Oh to have more adults in the world, with convictions like that! How many chronologically mature individuals are still children when it comes to making choices based on what’s right rather than on what feels good? To fight this tendency toward childish self-indulgence when facing moral questions, we must not only ask, “What’s wrong with it?” but then move on to, “What’s the right thing to do?” (for there’s no point in doing well what should not be done at all!) These rules define adult behavior. But these days the word adult seems to have taken on a totally opposite meaning: when used as an adjective before words like entertainment, movies, humor, etc, it connotes not adult maturity but childish self-indulgence. Don’t let things that defile you define you! Let’s be adults, like the boy Daniel, and make up our minds ahead of time that we will not eat or drink or speak or participate in anything that will defile us, inside or out – for we, too, are hand-picked…by the One who has captured our heart!
Thursday, January 22, 2009
In John 3 we read where Jesus told Nicodemus about being born again. He was talking about the miracle change God performs in the heart of anyone who turns to Christ for soul salvation. We are promised a glorious new life, now, in exchange for our ugly old one! Baptism illustrates this exchange: to go under the water is not a picture of a bath (turning over a new leaf) but a death (making room for a new life). Coming up out of the water pictures being born anew. Paul said, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away, behold, all things become new” (II Corinthians 5:17). And Jesus talked about seeds that fall into the ground and die – look what comes up: fresh new life! This is the first new birth, which refers to deep-rooted, fundamental, internal change. Any change we try to make on ourselves is skin deep at best, but Jesus makes us clean and new from the inside out. But regarding that outside body, the poet said it best…
The outward man - do what I can to lengthen out his life’s short span –
Shall perish and return to dust, as everything in nature must.
The first new birth must be our priority, our main business in this life, even while we are imprisoned in bodies which may first impress, but then disappoint, and finally disappear. But the Bible also speaks of a second new birth, which has to do with that perishable “outward man.” Today’s Scripture says that God has another miracle in store for every believer: a new body! For those still alive at Christ’s coming, it will be an instantly transformed body; for those who have died it will be a resurrected body. In either case we will never again get sick or tired – and we will never grow old or die…the fulfillment of the dream men have dreamed since the beginning of time: finding the fountain of eternal youth. Not that we should cast off all care regarding taking care of our bodies, for remember, we “do what we can to lengthen out life’s short span,” but in the end we lose and death wins, unless we are among those of that last generation who will be alive when Jesus comes. Nothing wrong with hoping for that, I’d say! Still, it’s better that we should concentrate more on how we live than on how long we live. It is said that the good die young, but crusty old fools live on and on! Others remind us of Bible promises of long life to those who live righteously. Whichever of these categories you may fit into, just remember that, for the Christian, the best is always yet to come.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Disregarding the content for a moment, it is interesting to find in the book of Job a helpful pattern to follow in the fine art of conversation. You don’t see people interrupting one another. Each waits his turn, and when he does speak, it is evident he has been listening. And God is brought into the equation at every turn. People today have slipped from the common courtesies called for in good conversation, as so stridently evident in the rudeness observed between talk show hosts and their guests. You never hear the end of anyone’s sentence! It seems there are two kinds of people in the world: those who do all the talking, and those never able to get a word in edgewise! I contend that everyone who is able to talk wants t0 -- but not everyone gets to! Everywhere we see this uncomfortable and contentious competition taking place where the strongest, loudest one chooses the topic, and then dominates the floor, thus insuring that what follows is not really a conversation at all! We complain about being the innocent victim of a friend’s never-ending jabbering, but how often do we go on and on without so much as taking a breath, convinced we’re wowing and impressing and entertaining and delighting our listeners. I shudder to think how often I might have made a fool of myself with my boorish conversation domination! And so I direct this advice primarily to myself when I say to parents and anyone privileged with a position of influence over others: learn the fine art of conversation, and then pass it on to those under your charge. Not only is good conversation the pleasantest path to learning and growing, but it is the chief proving ground for good manners, and the best and most practical expression of kindness. It is interaction between two minds, the manifestation of genuine love between two hearts and, at its very best, the process by which we commune with the Lover of our souls. Yes, just as the talking that goes on between two people should not be a one-sided lecture or sermon, neither should our communion with God be a laundry list of our requests or grievances – or even a prolonged discourse enumerating our thanks and praise. As appropriate as it is to be grateful and devout, sometimes we just need to be still in God’s presence, to be quiet and listen, to wait for Him to speak, and take note of – and take to heart – what He says.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
“We Have No King but……”
“This day in the year 2009 the United States of America witnesses an historical event.” I always smile when someone declares a current event to be “historical.” Isn’t it up to history – what will be written in tomorrow’s history books – whether or not something or someone getting all of today’s attention deserves a place in history? Millions of us listened in on the Inaugural proceedings at noon today. Even as I joined the nation and the world in welcoming our new President Obama, I was saddened to hear the stifled boos of contempt directed at outgoing President Bush when his name was announced. Today was a microcosmic picture of one week in history, long ago: On Sunday the new king of a hurting nation was welcomed with unabashed accolades and praise. One week later He was stripped of His royalty, His dignity, His reputation – even His clothes – and was nailed to a cross to die the death of a common criminal. What’s the lesson here? That people are fickle? Yes, certainly. But there’s more. When Pilate, the governor of Judea, questioned Jesus, asking if He indeed considered Himself to be a king, the answer came quickly, “Yes, but my kingdom is not of this world.” In other words, "You, Pilate, and your king, Caesar, need not be threatened by my presence or power. I am King of the world in the sense that I own it, I made it, I care for it...because I love it; and I would never do anything to hurt it – in fact, I have come into it to save it.” But the people would have none of this, and the weakling ruler let them have their way. “And the rest,” as they say, “is history!” Fast forward to today: We now have a new president who is being lauded as some kind of wonderful worldwide savior. It’s scary to see so much faith put in a mortal man. I’m reminded of a poem we studied in high school, about a king of some now forgotten civilization who was lauded as God’s gift to the world, the answer to all its problems. Hundreds of years later a traveler crosses a lonely desert where he sees, protruding from the barren wasteland, two giant trunkless legs, and a shattered bust nearby, with this inscription: “My name is Ozmandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” The poem goes on, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” What is the lesson? Simply this: we must finish the above sentence correctly, for only One King can fulfill the mission we so quickly assign to the wrong man.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts -60).
Forgiving Those Who Don’t Think They Need Our Forgiveness
We must live our lives by this cardinal rule: “Seek at all costs to speak and act in ways that will bring no regrets.” It’s pretty safe to say that we will never regret being too free with our forgiveness, whereas stinginess in forgiving may cause pain, to ourselves and others, that will not be easily assuaged. The greatest test of a forgiving heart is being able to forgive those who have no idea they need your forgiveness. A loved one rudely ignores or crassly criticizes you, or misrepresents your character or motives to others (yes loved one, for who would be all that bothered by the slights of someone who is little more than an acquaintance?) You want to strike out, if not in retaliation, at least in self-defense. You want to set the record straight and reestablish the equilibrium of righteousness in your relationships. Sounds good. Sounds right. But…it won’t work. You’ll surely say or do what you will eventually regret. How much better to follow the tack of Jesus, and forgive now, ahead of time, the one who has no idea of his offence. Knowing now what your persecutor will know eventually will change your hurt into pity, and your hatred into compassion. Your realizing now how sorry he will be later will not only heal you of the pain you feel, but will also serve as a catalyst toward the healing of your enemy. To forgive now, ahead of time, is Christ-likeness of the first order, for didn't Jesus forgive, while on the cross, those who were killing Him, long before they understood their desperate need of that forgiveness? And didn’t that Christlike disciple, Stephen, do the same? Both freely offered forgiveness while being killed by those they were forgiving. This kind of forgiveness is without doubt the hardest thing Christ could ever ask you to do, for it seems to suck the lifeblood right out of you. But didn’t our Lord also say that “unless a seed of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will abide alone; but if it dies and is buried, it will bear much fruit”? The last thing Jesus said before succumbing to crucifixion (and Stephen, before he was blasted and buried by stoning), was to ask God not to charge their killers’ wickedness to their account, for they were doing it in ignorance. Think about how much easier it would be to forgive someone whose offenses against us were driven more by ignorance than by outright hatred or evil. Although it is just as necessary to forgive in either case, shouldn’t we offer the benefit of the doubt to our persecutors, who may think they are doing God’s business? After all, how many times have we done the same to others?