Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Story of Betty - A Life of Faith and Gratitude

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16 ESV
A great privilege I had as a pastor was the opportunity frequently to visit in the homes of elderly church members and to hear the stories of their lives. It took very little time during a conversation to turn to matters of faith.

One woman in her mid-80's was Betty. She had not driven for many years, if ever, so she walked everywhere she went. Her daughter lived in a neighboring rural community, and as Betty's mobility declined, she had become increasingly bound to her home.

Betty's house was only a few blocks from the church, and during the warmer parts of the year she was able, on some Sundays, to muster the strength to walk to church. Betty kept up with the church by our daily radio spots, the broadcast of our Sunday services, personal phone calls, and pastoral visits. Even though she was not physically present, she was an active member, a faithful tither, and she even participated in craft projects from her home, making decorations and homemade gifts for others. She was a blessing to everyone.

One day I heard from one of her friends that Betty had decided to have a knee replacement surgery. I was a little surprised, given her age, and I suppose I lacked an understanding of what her mobility and independent living had meant to her. She was a woman of immense inner strength, with no fear, and a life of deep faith.

When I visited with her and her daughter in the hospital before the surgery, Betty told me that the reason she was having her knee replaced was so that she could walk to church on Sundays. She was absolutely sincere. Her life had been centered around her faith, and she missed worshiping with her church family more than many of us can understand.

Her surgery was successful, and a few days after it was over, she was sent downstairs to the in-patient rehabilitation floor which was a busy place in this aging community. The first few days went well. She handled pain better than most, it appeared, and she was gaining in her hope for greater independence.

After a few days of this, she seemed tired and a bit concerned about a fever she had developed. It became apparent a few days later that she would have to postpone her rehab until she was well. Her fever had made her weak, and though her therapy was going well, she would have to reserve her physical resources for fighting off pneumonia.

Betty's decline was rapid. She was moved from the rehab unit to a critical care room where she would stay. Over the course of about ten days, as I remember, we visited daily, sometimes twice a day. She always wanted me to read the Bible to her, pray with her, and on at least one occasion she wanted us to sing a hymn together, How Great Thou Art.

During one of our last visits, Betty wanted to talk about heaven, and about her funeral. It was a dramatic shift, and I know her family was uncomfortable with it, making it harder for her to talk openly out of respect for their feelings.

Betty understood that her time was near, that she had reached the summit of her journey, standing there on that mountaintop of enormous faith, breathing in the freshness of God's spirit, enjoying the indescribable beauty of the glory of God.

I had been at death's bed with many others over the years, but I don't recall witnessing anything of this magnitude before. I left her room, literally in awe of the beautiful gift of faith God had nurtured in her over her many years. It was our last conversation before we are to meet again in heaven.

The next evening, I drove over to the hospital to see her. When I got to Betty's room, her family left us alone for a few minutes. Betty had slipped into that state of consciousness that is such a mystery. She was unable to talk, and she did not open her eyes, but when I held her hand there was yet the slightest squeeze in response to mine.

I leaned over to her ear and told her what everyone would have wanted to say to her, those who had known her, that she had lived an exemplary life of faith, and that by her example she had influenced more people than she could have ever known. I recited the 23rd Psalm, and I prayed that she would have the strength in these final hours to receive the blessings and thanksgivings of her family, and that when the hour came that she would receive her final breath with the dignity and joy which her life had exemplified. I asked the Lord to give her the courage to let go and to be confident that her family would be loved and embraced by the community of faith.

I raised my eyes to her face. She was relaxed, her breathing was light and easy, and from her closed eyes, tears had formed. She showed no anxiety nor fear. Indeed, she appeared to be basking in the glory of God.

The next morning, I received a call about her passing. A few days later I conducted the funeral. As she had requested, I sang How Great Thou Art, and Amazing Grace. Then, I told her story to a congregation of church members, many on walkers or in wheelchairs, who had gathered to celebrate Betty's life.

Paul's words remind us of the work God is doing in the lives of those who are faithful, in spite of the declining condition of our physical bodies.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
While we witness the fall of life, and then the bitterness of the winter, it is the glory of God that we witness in the spring that is affirmed again and again every day as we pray, as we worship, and as we express our gratitude to him for the life he has given us and for the life which is to come.

Praise be to God for his grandeur, his glory, and the life which springs forth from within us even in contradiction to the body in which our breath currently resides.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Staying Power of God

I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have known the distress of my soul.
Psalm 31:7 ESV
These past couple of years, it would not be an exaggeration to say, have been years of great distress for many families. Financial stress, health epidemics, declining security, both personal and national, and to some degree, the fading of the essential unifying principle of a common faith, have converged upon us and have shattered the facades we had constructed to ward off the enemies of our comfort, leaving us naked and exposed.

Recent events, such as the shootings at Fort Hood, and the rising of unemployment to the highest levels in over 25 years, have exposed our areas of increasing vulnerability. It is as if we are living through the times of our greatest dread.

Living in the shelter of imagined security is foolish. Like the man who built his house upon the shifting sands, in Matthew 7:27, the results can be catastrophic. We read there:

And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
Ultimately, there is no comfort in facades. What we have built, what we have saved, and what we have believed amount to nothing unless they have all been built upon the one thing which David speaks about in our lead passage, the steadfast love of God.

In the tumult of his life, created in large part by his own conniving and sin, David recognizes that God is not a mere spectator in our lives. His love is not offered from an objective distance; rather, it is love in which he is engaged so deeply that he lives in the very beings of those who believe in him.

He is indeed the greatest stakeholder in our lives. Not our parents, not our spouses, nor even we ourselves, have a greater claim on us than does God himself. He is our creator, the one who sustains our lives in good times and bad, and he alone assures us of lasting security, gained not through means of our own, but through the giving of his son. Indeed, he has the ultimate stake upon our lives.

David recognizes in this passage God's intimate awareness of our condition--you have known the distress of my soul. Knowledge is more than seeing; it is firsthand, more like empathy than observation.

And, if God is intimately aware of our condition, he is put off by our facades. He sees how they crush our intimate possibilities with him. He loathes them. They are obstacles to the intimacy he desires with us, whether we see it that way or not. It is correct, then, to say that God is more intimate with our condition, and the tragic circumstances of our distress, than we are ourselves. And, David knows this.

A revealing mark of David's faith is his confidence in God. David reveals in many of the psalms a heartfelt sense of shame and sorrow, which he often expresses to God with tears and the language of a sincere penitent. And, in doing so, his prayers reach a level of honesty that a doubting person cannot achieve. In his laments, David understands how big God is--God knows, even better than he himself knows, the afflictions and distress of his soul.

A doubting person would at most be silent, hoping the shame will go away by ignoring it. An angry doubter might indeed shake his fist in defiance of God, thus expressing a crisis of faith in the goodness of God.

But, in this psalm, David expresses his confidence, not simply in the omnipresence of God, but in the very character of his omnipresence--God's steadfast love.

And, this confidence in God's intimate knowledge of him, rather than causing David to heap more shame upon himself than he already has, brings joy--I will rejoice and be glad. And, this joy comes only because David knows God, and he trusts God without pretense or facade.

Might it be that in our season of great distress we could find ourselves trusting in God, his character, his eternal presence, his staying power, his steadfast love?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

God's Good Intentions Are Reliable

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.
Jeremiah 29:11-13 ESV
One thing in which believers can remain utterly confident is the good intention which God has for the people whom he has chosen.

This may seem at first to be a loaded statement, for we are apt to think of good intentions with a negative connotation. For instance, we have a saying, The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We sometimes spoke of rude or inconsiderate people as having only the best of intentions, as if their intentions excused them from the way they acted when they were unkind or rude.

Certainly, humanly speaking, intentions are not good enough to merit another's confidence. We must see performance, behavioral consistency, and some history that a person's intentions are reliable.

Our inconsistencies between what we say and what we do bespeak hypocrisy. And, nothing has erased confidence in believers more quickly than this. This is why rude people can't get away with their rudeness. Intentions do matter, but how can we know one's intentions if his actions say something else?

I wonder if this is why we are prone to think so dispassionately about God's promises. We are accustomed to hypocrisy; we're just human, we say. Have we so compartmentalized our lives that our beliefs and our actions are isolated from each other?

If indeed this pitfall is what it means to be human, we should remember it is not so with God. This inconsistency does not exist with he who is perfect, complete, and righteous.

The passage here in Jeremiah should be understood in the context for which it was spoken. It was uttered to God's chosen nation while they were separated from their homeland and the center of their identity in Jerusalem, a separation caused by their disobedience, idolatry, and their forsaking of the covenant relationship. They were hostages in the land of their enemies, in Babylon, and were desperate for God's attention and forgiveness.

These words were spoken not as some cheap comfort might be given to one today--"you know he means well"--but as a reminder that as God's chosen people much had been given, and much was to be expected. Acting as God's mouthpiece to Israel, Jeremiah is saying, "God will hold up his end of the covenant, and in doing so, you will see that he means business. He has not forgotten his plans for your good, your future, your hope. He will always carry out his good intentions. Perhaps, you will now understand how he wants you to behave."

No doubt, one of the chief consistencies of God is the consistency of his love, with justice, and in due time, no matter our present circumstances, his purposes will see fulfillment.

Though it might be understandable that we would have some skepticism about human intentions, it must become a matter of utmost importance to us to embrace the purposes and hope of God. As someone has said, "We must live in the present with the end in mind." Such hope requires prayer and uncommon trust. God will not disappoint.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dawn

But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
Proverbs 4:18 ESV
I ran across this proverb a few weeks ago when I was wondering why it takes so long to finally "get it" as a Christian. Do you see in it what I see?

One of my treasured memories during a period of my life when I regularly went fishing on Lake Livingston with a buddy of mine happened one morning very early. It was a Friday morning. (I was a pastor in those days, and I regularly took a day off on Fridays. I was fortunate to have a good almost-retired friend who had a boat and a house on the lake. No cell phones in those days, so it really was a day off.)

My buddy's name was Al. He had worked for Exxon for 30+ years and had earned something like six weeks' vacation per year, and he took those days one at a time, on Fridays...fishing. And, I was the beneficiary of it.

On this particular Friday morning, we had made an extra effort to be on the water when the sun rose. The water was as still as glass in the fading moonlight as Al killed the motor. Being the first boat on the lake that morning, it appeared, we went to our best spot first, knowing that there was a friendly competition to see who would catch the lunker of the day, so we quietly, but skillfully, went about the business of readying ourselves for the excitement of that first cast.

No sooner than the light of the moon faded, hints of daylight began to peek above the silhouettes of the pine trees at the edge of the bank at the point we had chosen. The ripples in the water from the gentle movement of the boat became mere wrinkles and finally ceased. Our stealthy arrival was successful as we let ourselves simply drift without disturbing the sleepers below with the plop of an anchor.

The light was such that we could only see well enough to know which direction to cast--toward the silhouettes. Details of the surroundings were not visible. The freshness, the fragrance of the trees and natural decay along the muddy bank, and the stillness...the utter stillness of the crisp morning...were impressed upon my senses so powerfully that today, over twenty years later, it is a moment I capture frequently when I need an escape from the obscenity of the noise and nagging necessities of everyday life.

As I was looking down, carefully tying the lure for my first cast, Al tapped me on the shoulder gently with the end of his fishing rod. I looked up, and he directed my eyes to a scene on the bank where a young fawn had come down to the water's edge to take a drink. The distance was no more than thirty feet away. We couldn't see where the mother was, but we imagined we were being watched carefully. The baby looked at us for a few moments, holding his stillness, but seeming not to fear. He dipped his tongue in the cool water again, and I strained to listen for the lapping sound, but heard none.

After a satisfying drink, the fawn hopped swiftly away from the water's edge and was out of sight, into the trees, before I was ready to give him up. As he disappeared into the woods and brush, the sounds of the watching mother joining her baby's escape could be heard, as both mother and child hastened to go about their day, doing whatever deer do.

Our eyes having adjusted to the increasing light, we made our first cast without speaking. I don't remember who spoke first, but something was said about the beauty of the moment making the day worthwhile. We didn't catch a lunker. In fact, the day was interrupted shortly afterward by my catching Al in the back with a treble hook (the second time in five years), and my driving him to a clinic in Livingston to get the hook removed.

By the time we got back to the boat, the enchantment of the morning had passed, and the brightness of the day was upon us. As the day grew longer, the lake got crowded, and the odor of motor oil and gasoline replaced the fragrance of the morning.

On the drive home, we talked openly about the deer, but privately, I wondered how that day had played out for the fawn. I wondered how long he would live and what his routines were like. It was fascinating to know that the twenty-four hour cycle is one which all of creation experiences, though in dramatically different ways.

The proverb in today's passage is simple, but hopefully more poignant than before. We cannot expect ourselves to fully "get it" when we are taking our very first steps onto the path of righteousness. It is like the light of dawn. Though our first experiences of righteousness may flood us with unfathomable memories and sensations, especially as we catch that first glimpse of God's magnificent grace, the first steps must be abandoned for the next step...and the next...and the next.

The richness of those first steps is not lost as we tread into the full light of day. The path is marked. As the day brightens, the first steps are remembered, shared, and celebrated. And, they are called upon time and time again as clouds attempt to hide the light and cause our pursuit of righteousness to wane. We hearken back to those first moments of light to remember the joy, the crispness, and the Spirit who filled us so that we could say with the Psalmist, my cup runneth over.

The path of righteousness is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
May the joy of remembering be yours today.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Steadfast Love of God

"For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,"
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
Isaiah 54:10 ESV
I don't know how many ways it has to be said before we really understand it: God's love is eternal, steadfast, and perfectly loyal.

Paul's words in Romans 8 could not be any clearer on this subject:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 ESV
No serious believer can read these passages and deny the eternal, perfect love of God. Indeed, it is the one thing upon which virtually all Christians, conservative or liberal, agree--God is love.

Though it is probably the most prolific topic of Christian sermons, books, debates, and music, God's love is perhaps one topic that has been so radically diluted in meaning that it has been lost on many Christians.

I say this because we speak of love as if it is primarily an affection, or a strong feeling of attraction. In an effort to beef it up a little, we'll also speak of love as commitment, or even a rational decision of choice so that it is not confused with infatuation. Both affection and commitment are ingredients to love. But, God's love is much more.

For one thing, God's love is not compartmentalized. It is not separate from his nature, which means that it is one inseparable component among all other inseparable components of his nature, such as justice, holiness, and righteousness. It is integrated into his entire being, and to understand it, we must see it in this way. It means that even though his justice requires punishment for disobedience, his holiness requires separation from all that is unholy, and his righteousness requires him to employ justice and judgment along with love, he is yet loyal to the covenant to which he committed himself for eternity regardless of anything else that happens.

So, even if it may feel to us as if we have lost his affection toward us, perhaps because we have become alienated by our disobedience or by chasing after other gods, or idols, God in his very nature loves us. His love may show itself as affection if we are alienated, compassion if we are suffering, and yes, discipline if we are in need of it.

What does this mean?

It means that God does not fall out of love when we carelessly stray from him or even when we deliberately shake our fist at him in defiance. God does not fall out of love--indeed, he doesn't fall into it either. It is his nature to love.

It also means that we must view his justice and discipline in a different light. These are not momentary lapses of God's love but are indeed important components of it. If he loves, he disciplines. When he disciplines, he loves. They are acts joined together by his nature.

A loving parent understands this. When a child needs to be disciplined, the loving parent will act upon it and properly discipline the child. Laxity in discipline is a reflection of how shallow our love is, not a proof that we love our children too much to bring them temporary sadness or pain.

Just as it gives us pain to exercise discipline, and also to receive it, it does not contradict love. If anything, discipline proves love. It proves it because in spite of the pain of it, love is exercised in this form. To refrain from it at a time when discipline is necessary, is to dilute love into infatuation, the very definition of which makes it temporary and fickle.

So, when God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, "For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you," it is to be understood that we can see every action of God upon us as an action of love, even those actions which seem harsh and unfair, because if it is truly an action of God, it can be nothing less than an act of his full nature, this being the place where love resides.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How Long Must He Wait

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
2 Peter 3:8-10 ESV
Throughout Christian history there have been groups of believers who have given most of their attention to the end time, or that topic of theology called eschatology. Their preoccupation with how and when this apocalyptic ending will occur often throws them into a theological imbalance. In part, this is what Peter is addressing in the passage today. More specifically, he is dealing with the believers who are doubting the Lord's promise of returning because some people in this first generation of Christianity have died, while the earth and human history have continued to march forward unabashed.

In this post, I want to avoid a discussion of the particulars with regard to God's final judgment and concentrate on what Peter is saying in verse 9, but (the Lord) is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

It seems to me that we do not ask the right question. We observe that our world is filled with hatred, poverty, natural disasters, wars, a crumbling world economy, and such. And, we note that these troubles are growing rapidly. Sometimes, we must wonder, What is God waiting for? Why doesn't he pull the plug and put an end to all of this now?

But, in this passage, Peter frames the question differently, perhaps from God's point of view. He asks instead, What are you waiting for?

It is one thing to wonder about the Lord's timing, but it is quite another to lose sight of the reason why he would delay his return in the first place. What Peter tells his audience is that their point of view regarding God's timing is irrelevant--a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day--what is relevant is that the time remaining is to be spent bringing ourselves and others to repentance, a transformation from a life of disobedience and sin to a life of holiness and surrender to the Lord.

Unfortunately, this "between time" as some call it, is spent all too often unfruitfully. As we work and play, giving little thought to God, it is hardly a worthy question to ask, "God, why don't you do something about all this?" We are apt to wonder why God allows massive suffering and things we perceive to be unjust. We lose our way, forgetting that God's justice would require comprehensive suffering, even death, were it not for his grace. We forget that we are his guests, by grace, and that everything we have is a gift from God. Truthfully, we spend our time consuming the feast God has set before us, rather than in serving it.

Repentance requires transformative thinking and behaving. It means we keep on serving, keep on worshiping, keep on believing, hoping that our work might be completed rather than abbreviated by God finally letting the clock run out and rescuing us from a contemptible life of doubt and disobedience.

It is really God's grace that is reflected in his delay so that the work of his grace might have full effect on us and thrust us into the work of the kingdom. As Paul said in Philippians, For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Our time here is of value to the kingdom, and every moment in which God suspends his final judgment is an indication of his patience and his desire that all should reach repentance.

How long must He wait?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Empowered By Hope

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 ESV
At some point in modern Christianity believers began to listen too much to their critics, and in doing so, we denied ourselves one of the greatest treasures our faith produces in us--the joy of living physically in the present while cherishing the heavenly rewards of eternity.

I dare say that in order to engage in the dialog of modern materialism and existential philosophy (that is, our personal experience as ultimate truth and the consequent ethics of this position), in a meaningful way, Christians have been sheepish about announcing the anticipated treasures of eternity and everlasting life. We allowed ourselves to be sucker-punched by other debaters who insisted that to engage in a real dialog our discussions must pertain to present relevance because it is the material (what we see and what we can touch) that matters in the "real world."

Because we have removed much of the talk about heaven and heavenly treasures from our dialog, it should not be surprising that more and more of us do not believe in heavenly reward, or if we do, we don't really count on it with any assurance, and this is to the detriment of our present happiness as Christians, especially during tough times.

While we have doggedly striven for relevance, we have given lesser attention to the demands of what Paul calls "transformation," as in Romans 12:2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind....
Instead of transforming the debate into one about eternal relevance, we have tried to win it without our complete aresenal--the joy of living in the present while cherishing the promise of future reward. By debating on the terms given to us, and because we have lost our focus on eternal reward, we have unfortunately proven our critics' points.

Paul says twice in our lead passage today, "we are (always) of good courage." He goes on to say that whether we are "at home or away" (that is, in the physical body or in the future spiritual body with Christ), we make it our aim to please him. This is relevance of eternal significance.

Believers should allow themselves to be empowered by this hope which Paul expresses and not allow the debate to be shifted to subjects which are temporal and of little significance for eternity.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Truest Mark of a Child of God

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
Romans 8:13-14 ESV
A line is drawn in this passage between life and death. "Life" refers to eternal life, beginning in the present and lasting throughout eternity, for those who are the spiritual children of God. "Death" refers to the spiritual death of those who refuse to give up the "deeds of the body" and live by the Spirit of God.

An unfortunate modern philosophy has taken root, even within the church, which says that all of humanity are children of God by virtue of creation. Indeed, God is the Creator of all that is. While this is true in the general sense of physical creation, it is not true in the spiritual sense.

Sin has separated us from God in our natural state, a condition we inherited from the first man and woman whom God created after they fell to temptation in the garden. Our nature is to do what we want to do, regardless of what God has commanded. The Bible is clear about our natural condition--spiritual death--as Paul states several times in Ephesians:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world...among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus...For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV
Humanity is afforded a great opportunity to be once and forever restored to our Creator through Jesus Christ. The Bible refers to this as adoption. Continuing the lead passage from Romans 8:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"
Romans 8:15 ESV
The unfortunate mistake of modern Christians is that many are relying upon a false belief that simply because they have been baptized, or have at some point in their lives made a one-time declaration that they believe in Jesus Christ, that they have a right to expect the privileges of adoption and eternal life. Many, many Christians are relying on the mistaken theologies of preachers who have sold them this bill of goods without expounding upon the rest of the story.

It is clear in many places in the scriptures that authentic Christian faith is that faith which results in obedience and a life in pursuit of holiness, or the process of sanctification. It does not mean that a Christian is a person who lives a perfect life--far from it--what it does mean is that a true Christian is one whose faith is more than a one-time public declaration, or baptism, and his/her life is marked by denial of the "deeds of the body," sincere repentance for sins committed, and an earnest lifelong attempt to worship God and to obey him.

While the scripture is clear that our works of obedience do not save us, it is just as clear that the faith that saves is a faith that proves itself in good works.

My interest is not in theological argument, or to win debate points, but it is to help those like me who lived too much of his life holding naively to an inadequate faith, not fully understanding the importance of living one's faith.

What I see now is that I was taught this hard doctrine correctly, but it was too complicated in light of what the pressures of growing up and the philosophies of modern life were teaching me. I recall hearing this doctrine taught correctly from pastors and Sunday school teachers I had while growing up, but because I didn't have the longer view in mind of what sanctification really involves, I chose instead to believe what was simple.

My hope is that those who have shared this inadequate view of faith, like I have had most of my life, will spend some time in earnest consideration of how convincing their faith really is to those with whom they share their lives. Is it a convincing faith? Is it growing in holiness? Does it render sincere worship of God? And, does it identify you accurately as a child of God?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Last Laugh

The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes his teeth at him,
but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.
Psalm 37:12-13 ESV
I wonder what the Psalmist was thinking when he penned these words. I wonder if he was growing weary of his critics, or suffering from the weight of constant public ridicule for believing in an unseen God, or perhaps, from his own inner turmoil which comes when our critics begin to make more sense than our faith does.

It is a serious challenge when we strive to hold onto faith when we are under the duress of our own doubts. Our critics' voices start to make sense, and we are less likely to speak up or to stand against them, lacking confidence in our defense and in God's protection.

Churches are prone to softening the blow of critics by adopting secular themes, methods, and verbiage which will be non-offensive. Hoping to capture a larger audience, the Christianity they purport is one with a dull edge, incapable of transforming a culture at its roots.

Credibility for many churches is gained by how well they can cozy up to the culture while maintaining just enough religion to save their non-profit status. Unfortunately, the gospel doesn't do it for them. They measure success by numbers, not by radical adherence to biblical doctrine and orthodox Christian faith.

So, to speak as the Psalmist does about the Lord who "laughs at the wicked" is to speak of those both outside the church and those on the inside who devise their own plots for dulling the edge of the sharp, two-edged sword, which is the word of God (Heb 4:12; Eph 6:17). His laugh is not one of comic relief, but one of scoffing judgment upon the foolishness of the wicked.

I suppose the goal of the passage today is to comfort those who suffer from the devices of the wicked, the critics of true faith. However, it should only be comforting to those who are in the end to be found faithful to God. To find comfort otherwise is to count on something from God that his justice will not allow him to give.

Let us be found faithful in word and deed, not counted among the wicked, knowing that in the end, the last laugh will be God's.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sneaking Into Heaven

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their God is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
Philippians 3:18-19 ESV
I hope never to lose my sense of humor, such as it is, but I have to acknowledge that much of what captures the imagination of our culture are the negative influences of TV sitcoms. Yes, I enjoy them myself, but I'm increasingly aware of how their influence is harming us.

In the past decade or two it has been increasingly popular to portray men in particular as mindless, carefree, and immature, enjoying only sports, beer, cheeseburgers, and busty women other than their wives, while embracing a simplistic morality which says, As long as I'm not hurting anyone, just let me live my life as a little boy.

The reason this portrayal is so humorous is because to a large extent it has become more and more true as men have neglected the harder things in life while embracing those pleasures which gratify them the quickest. We laugh because Hollywood has captured a side of human nature that in former days would have been disdained, but by bringing it to light with likable characters in funny situations, it has provided us with a defense mechanism against slothfulness, gluttony, and greed.

I say this not because I am a snob about TV, but simply to point out how well it portrays a problem which Paul addresses in today's passage.

Paul's immediate audience was that of a church he dearly loved, the believers at Philippi. One needs only to read his extended passage of thanksgiving in the early part of the letter to know that his love for them was deep and sincere. So, he is addressing believers, not a group of people who had never heard the gospel.

He says, I "tell you with tears" that I have heard that many of you are walking "as enemies of the cross of Christ." And then, he defines their behavior more specifically. Note:

their end is destruction
their God is their belly
they glory in their shame
with minds set on earthly things
What he describes are those at Philippi who are Christians "in name only." He is saddened to the point of tears for their lack of maturity, their willingness to walk down known paths of destruction, not only denying the cross of Christ but by declaring in their own shame that they are indeed enemies of Christ.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to draw the parallels with modern culture. Not only do we have the humorous and unflattering portrayal of human nature as depicted on our sitcoms, but we also have to look at the easy targets like Wall Street, Madison Avenue, etc. But, it's even worse.

Ready to hear what the most disturbing problem is? It's the same as it was with Paul -- it's the church itself.

Paul's beef wasn't with the world outside; it is understandable that outside of Christ such behavior might be rampant. No, Paul's tears were due to the failure of those who come to Christ casually, that is, without first considering the price Christ paid ("enemies of the cross", he says), nor the cost of discipleship implicit in one's decision to become a follower in the first place.

Who hasn't seen this? As far as that goes, who hasn't behaved this way themselves as a believer?

Knowing that our culture accepts, and even celebrates, people who establish their own morality and flaunt it, defend it, and reverse it when expedient to do so, it is even more incumbent upon Christians to distinguish themselves as lovers of Christ and his cross.

We don't sneak into heaven the back way. We don't receive forgiveness without repentance; we don't love Christ except that he has loved us first; we don't unite with him in heaven unless we live with him, acknowledging him in our words and behavior, on earth.

Believing is not enough; indeed, the Bible teaches that even the demons believe and shudder. Belief that doesn't yield obedience, even to the point of cultural separation when necessary, represents the belief of a Christian "in name only." Paul calls such Christians enemies of the cross of Christ.

It is a hard thing to accept, yet it is most certainly true, that a daily duty of a Christian is to honor the cross of Christ in our behavior in all things.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Honor Your Parents": Evidence of the Wisdom of God

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
Exodus 20:12 ESV
I am struck again with how important this commandment is. My grandmother passed away at age 99 a few weeks ago, and at her side during the last months of her life were her three remaining sons, all of whom are in their seventies and eighties and dealing with their own health issues.

While tempted to pay a long tribute to them in today's blog post, I will refrain, though they certainly deserve the praise, and I will simply say that their love and innate understanding of this commandment has become a fresh example of the wisdom in God's word.

When Paul cited this passage in Ephesians 6, he reminded his readers that this is the first commandment with a promise: that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

I am not certain why there is a connection between honoring parents and longevity of life, but I suspect that the real intent of the promise is to the family of faith (Israel of old, and to include the Christian family today) so that we may continue to exhibit the eternal love of God within the family structure, thereby passing it to future generations, and giving greater honor and glory to the Lord our God.

It makes sense, doesn't it? Within the family of faith, the design of God is to pass on his covenantal grace within the family structure, father to son, mother to daughter, parents to children. When there is a disruption in this preferred flow of generational teaching and tradition, whether through death, separation or unfaith, then the danger is losing the next generation. When this happens, God mercifully uses other means to rescue those whom he has chosen as his children.

Within the families of faith, the believing son or daughter ministers to his/her parents, not simply out of necessity, but as a very real and tangible mercy of Jesus.

There is great wisdom in this commandment. While old age is a blessing from God, it doesn't come without some hard work. There comes a time when the real exercise of one's faith is required in caring for those who are no longer able to care for themselves. A son's or daughter's response to this requirement is all at once both a test of his love for the parent AND a test of his love for God.

And, the accompanying blessing to the next generation is great as well. The believing caretaker says to his own children and the generations that follow: Even though you have known me to be harsh, unforgiving, and sometimes unloving, in the end I am but a humble servant of the Lord, here only because of his mercy, and not on my own strength.

When my grandmother passed away she had been suffering from dementia, but she had retained much of the self-reliance which exhibited as stubbornness. She used to tell me that she was ready any time to go and meet the Lord. She joked with me many times that she attributed her long life to the "scotch in my blood." She meant Scottish blood; I, of course, made comments about not knowing she drank scotch. It was an old joke that we laughed about many, many times. But, as my sister said, she had had her bags packed for years. But, her good health had allowed her to be with us for a long time, and this was indeed a blessing.

In the end, she was not an easy patient. If a son, or daughter-in-law, or grandchild, were to be looking for reasons to be offended in her last days, they could have found it and thrown up their arms and left her to her own suffering. However, nurtured through 99 years of a hard and trying life, her faith and service were successfully transmitted to the next generation as evidenced in the love and compassion her aging children showed to her.

If ever we are tempted to think that God's wisdom is irrelevant in this particular commandment, let us think again. Only he fully understands the way faith is transmitted, because after all, he is the giver of it:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8 ESV

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Tempting Deception

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Colossians 2:8 ESV
I'm not concerned here about such things as political philosophies and ideologies, because it should be obvious to most observers that such things as these can often change due to personal circumstances and the failings of those who champion such ideas. It's funny how that works -- a grand idea is subject to the perfection of those who promote it -- it hardly seems fair.

However, this may be one of the main reasons that the "philosophy" of Jesus is so appealing, even to those who do not believe in Christ alone for their salvation. It is the perfection of Jesus that ultimately validates his sacrificial death. Or, as Paul puts it:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV
The point I want to emphasize in the lead passage today though is that we must be cautious about the ideas to which we fall prey as Christians. It's easiest to identify "alien" ideas that are blatantly unChristian (atheism, as an example). The more challenging task is to identify those ideas which carry Christian labels or those which seem to run parallel with the more obvious Christian traditions and theologies.

In this genre of philosophy lie such values as self-reliance, tolerance, democratic rule, and so many other ideas upon which our American society is based. I am not suggesting that we ought to abandon any of these values; rather, I am simply pointing out that while any such thing might look good, and indeed be foundational in civil society, these do not rise to an equivalency to Christ.

Idolatry has many forms, and as it has always been, idols do not let us know that that's what they are. Instead, they relish the attention they are able to draw from us, so why should they want to give away their little secrets?

The work of our intellect can be surprisingly insidious. While we grapple for our cherished cultural ideals, even to the point of hating those who oppose them, we willingly ignore some of those patently Christian teachings -- this one, for instance:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven."
Matthew 5:43-45a ESV
It is most important that Christians understand that the philosophies of this world are incapable of creating a utopian society (The story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 comes to mind as one of the earliest attempts to do so.).

It can easily be argued that neither is the Christian philosophy capable of it. A utopia in which there is no strife, no poverty, no illness, no death, etc., is not the chief aim of Christ, even if our philosophy would have it be so.

The chief aim of Christ is to bring to faith those whom God has chosen, and this being accomplished, the hand of God's justice will come down in judgment. This hardly seems utopian.

So, while Paul warns us in our lead passage not to be deceived by the philosophies of this world, it is really a warning against taking that which seems good to us philosophically and giving it ultimacy in our lives.

What is most important is that we engage in a tenacious search for the truth of God, knowing that the Truth of God is found only in God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

While civil society may require imperfect and incomplete principles in order to exist peacefully, we are not to be "taken captive" by them, for they fall far short of the requirements of living in the kingdom of God.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Comfort in God's Omnipresence

The eyes of the LORD are in every place,
keeping watch on the evil and the good.
Proverbs 15:3 ESV
God keeping his eye on everything ALL the time, rather than being something that evokes shame or fear, should, in fact, give the believer great comfort.

Conventional wisdom often says that God is not concerned about minutiae such as the details of our lives that cause us worry or anxiety. "Certainly, God has bigger things to deal with than a little squabble you might have with a coworker," is an example of this sort of wisdom. It is often used as a discouragement to praying for godly solutions to everyday issues in life.

The trouble with this mindset is that it wrongly encourages us to seek solutions apart from God, utilizing our own wisdom, or in many cases the advice of others, and it discourages us from taking our troubles before the Lord God. Needless to say, what this does to one's personal faith can be devastating.

In time, it erodes a life of prayer by encouraging radical self-reliance. While personal strength, wisdom, intelligence, and courage are admirable for people of faith, radical self-reliance represents a heart of unbelief.

Then, what is the "happy medium" for those who would pray?

We should keep in mind one of the teachings of Jesus:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Matthew 10:29-31 ESV
It is not that we should pray about every single decision in life (which shirt to put on, what to cook for dinner, etc.), but that we should be aware that there is nothing that we face, or think, that is outside the view of God's eyes.

A person who prays regularly and devotes himself to growing in faith will recognize those decisions and situations for which specific prayer should be made to God. For those who would not want to "trouble" God, I ask, just how much trouble is it to one who keeps account of every sparrow and the hairs of every head of every person who has ever lived?

In an effort not to "trouble" God, we should always keep foremost in our minds, there is nothing that God has not already seen, nothing at all. The more we are aware of this, the less likely we are to consider anything to be trivial with God, much less those things which trouble our hearts.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

God Looks at the Heart

But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."
1 Samuel 16:7 ESV
A lesson for anyone who would make choices between individuals, whether it is for a future spouse, a business partner, or even a pastor, is to approach the decision with a desire to do the will of God and not to be caught up in the external qualities which are often deceptive.

This passage in the first book of Samuel is the opening scene in the account of the selection of David to become king of Israel.  Samuel bore the responsibility, as priest, of anointing a new king.  Provincial wisdom would have dictated that among the sons of Jesse (David's father), Samuel would have selected the eldest.  If the eldest were to be unsuitable for the appointment, the next best thing would have been the selection of the one with the greatest stature.  David was neither; instead, he was very young and apparently of modest stature, and Jesse had never considered bringing him before Samuel for consideration. 

Samuel inquired of Jesse if these present were all of his sons, to which Jesse replied that the youngest, David, was out tending sheep, not even a part of the action.  Samuel requested that David be fetched and brought before him.  The LORD said to Samuel, "Arise, anoint him, for this is he."

In God's purposes, traditional human wisdom is not sufficient.  God's purposes require searching the heart of those who would be leaders.

It is obvious from the life and kingship of David that moral perfection is not a necessity, though the ability to repent sincerely from moral failure (sin) IS important.  Qualities from which leadership is to be drawn are qualities deriving from the heart, that is, they derive from the driving forces within one's life: his motivations, his leanings, his loves and passions.  An honest appraisal of these attributes must be made if one is to seek the same qualities God seeks.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Walking Out the Will of God

For this is the will of God, your sanctification.
For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.
Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
1 Thessalonians 4:3,7-8 ESV

Earnest Christians actively seek the will of God for their lives.  It is common for sincere believers to pray fervently for God to reveal his will to them, to guide them through tough decisions, hard times, and for direction in the living of their lives daily.

Humans are prone to complicate the issue.  Efforts to seek the Lord's will rise to such heights that the obvious revelations are overlooked.  It is a characteristic of modern do-it-yourself religion for Christians to expect God to provide a special revelation at their beck and call.  Seeking such special revelations when God has already laid down his will in the scriptures and in the life of Jesus amounts to a rejection of his will, not a withholding of it.

Just listen to the prayers we make, both publicly and privately.  How many of our words are words of praise and adoration of God, his majesty, and his holiness?  How many of our expressions are echoes of our thankful hearts as we express ourselves to God?  Probably, not as many as we would want.

When I pray, especially when I'm in a hurry, I tend to cut to the chase.  I want to get something off my chest, or make a special request of God.

If the truth were really known, our vocabulary of prayer is very limited.  We find many ways to ask God for something, and like a child selling his desires to his parents, we are not shy about building our case as to why we need that for which we are asking. 

As I listen to prayers, I have also noticed that we do a fair job of thanksgiving for the blessings he has given us.  I fear however that our vocabulary for thanksgiving is broader than our sincere gratitude, but at least we make the effort to be thankful.

But, to sit still long enough, and to focus on our adoration of God, our praise of his holy attributes, is very difficult.  Concentrating on his holiness, his grandeur, his sovereignty, all of these take enormous effort.  It requires us to think of God as Other, not as God in relationship with us.  Yet, is this not the chief aim of prayer, the worship of God?  I fear this is one of the chief sins of the church, a failure to recognize and worship God as God alone, holy, in all his mystery and glory. 

Getting back to the subject of knowing his will, God has provided enormous resources for this knowledge -- prayer is just one of them.  The scriptures are filled, from front to back, with the will of God.  We also have a record of the life of Jesus, God in the flesh, and not only do we have his words, we have his actions.  Are not these excellent sources for our counsel in the will of God?

Jesus, Paul, and others in the scriptures also tell us that the Holy Spirit -- God as Counselor, Teacher, Friend -- provides us with the knowledge of what we are to do by enlightening us in the word of God, that is, in the counsel of the scriptures themselves.  Also, Paul teaches in Romans 8 that the Holy Spirit makes intercession on our behalf, meaning that he pleads with the Father even when we are unable or unwilling. 

The biblical record is consistent -- God wants us to know his will, and he has made the knowledge of his will accessible to us in many ways, and from many places.

Why then is it one of the chief struggles of many Christians to come to grips with the will of God?

Some obvious reasons may be that it requires time to study the scriptures, to pray, and to discern the will of God through the means he has provided.  Certainly, this is at least part of the problem.  It may be deeper than this however.

It may also be difficult because we entertain doubts about the scriptures and whether or not God's word applies directly to us in our day and time.  In other words, it may not make sense to us to accept the Bible as the word of God, having authority in our lives.  This has certainly been one of my excuses over 55 years of faith.

However, I think the most probable reason for our struggling with the will of God is not that we do not know his will, but that we really don't want to do it

Was not this also the experience of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane?  It wasn't that he did not want to do the will of the Father in an ultimate sense, but that if there were any other way than to face the public ridicule, the trial, the death and separation from the Father for a time, he would rather have done it another way.  But, the will of the Father was not to be changed, and Christ was obedient, suffering the humiliation, pain, death, and separation, in order that God's plan to save us from our sins would be completed.

And, this is the critical issue -- our obedience, or as Paul says in the passage from 1 Thessalonians above, "this is the will of God, your sanctification."  What God clearly calls us to do is to become holy, just as he is holy, to be sanctified, that is, to grow in purity by becoming obedient in all things.

There are so many places in the scriptures to find the will of God.  Another excellent place to look is in Philippians 4, as I was reminded recently by a friend:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me -- practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
As we make it our chief aim to know the will of God, it is important to recognize that we must be willing to do it. As we do the will of God, revealed to us in the scriptures, knowing his will becomes a matter of simply putting one foot in front of another and walking it out, occasionally stumbling, yet always putting our feet back on the path he has set for us in his word.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Comfort in God's Eternal Existence

Before the mountains were brought forth
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting
you are God.
Psalm 90:2 ESV

The Psalmist eloquently places before us the pre-existence of God.

It is comforting, even though it is unimaginable, to know that God has always been. He was not created, nor did he suddenly appear out of nowhere to start creating his masterpiece.

The scripture above is clear, God has existed from everlasting past into everlasting future.

When Moses asked God on what basis, and upon whose authority, he would lead Israel out of bondage and to a promised land, God's response was to say simply, "I AM."

God's pre-existence as well as his post-human existence is the basis upon which his supreme authority is determined. Not only will he be the ultimate Judge at the conclusion of our earthly existence, as we are often reminded in sermons and in scriptures, he is also the one who predetermined the creation of the earth and all its inhabitants. He is sovereign.

It is wrong-headed to think that God is engaged in some cosmic struggle for power against evil or any personification of evil in the form of a devil, or Satan. To think of this as struggle is to entertain at least two possible errors: one, that God's sovereignty is compromised by the presence of evil; two, that the one who personifies evil (Satan, "the devil," etc.) possesses a measure of sovereign power which rivals the sovereignty of God.

Neither of these errors should be allowed a foothold in our understanding of God and creation; however, to some degree, many Christians mistakenly conform to these, in part, because the concept of sovereignty is so radical that it is difficult for many Christians to acknowledge.

It is made even more difficult when churches and Christian authors engage in existential philosophies and seek to blend cultural tenets into the Christian faith in order to help God make more sense to humanity, as if our helping God in this way makes more sense than did the incarnation of Jesus Christ in whom God disclosed himself more fully to us.

If anything is true about God at all, it is that nothing exists in creation that is not subject to his creative and governing authority.

While it still does not make it easy for us to understand why evil exists, or why bad things happen to seemingly good people, nor why those who are evil and faithless prosper, it does in fact increase the Christian's confidence in God simply by knowing that he is the Author and Finisher and that, ultimately, those who have faith in him will someday join him in the final conclusion to live out eternity under his authority and love.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Studying Genesis

Rather than picking topics for study, a few weeks ago, I decided to start at Genesis 1:1 and take my time reading through the Bible. My format for studying the Scriptures has varied so much over my 40 year history of studying them that I have left many gaps in my reading, tiring of one method or another, and then setting the whole thing aside until the motivation strikes again, sometimes much later than what is good for a Christian.

Realizing that the study of Scripture is essential to learning the truth about God, and recognizing that the length of it alone is enough to be overwhelming, I have yielded to a study format which aligns with goals of a deeper understanding, progressing forward only as I have gained an adequate understanding of the passages I have read, and a fuller recognition of what God has truly revealed about himself in the words written.

So, using the Reformation Study Bible (ESV), along with Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, I proceeded with a passage by passage study in mid-September. My habit is to mark passages, read study notes pertaining to them, cross-reference passages suggested in both resources, and then to reflect upon the meanings of them. When the passage becomes clear using this method, it is then appropriate and useful to apply that which I have learned about God, my faith, my needs for repentance and acceptance of blessing. Committing these thoughts to prayer, I seek to apply the lessons learned, both in actions toward God and others as well as in my role as a teacher of believers.

This blog picks up only some of those experiences as I have inspiration to write and share. It is not intended to be a daily exercise in order that the blog will remain an outlet tool as opposed to becoming the full purpose of my study.