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?