Sunday, February 28, 2010

Invisible Handprints

We got the call at the end of church this morning. My uncle had suffered a heart attack and was in surgery at the hospital.

As a rule, we rationally accept that every person is at risk to die the next second, but we ignore the highly unlikelies, the potentials, and sometimes even the probables because to live a life in constant fear of the "what ifs" isn't really living. And besides, no one can truly plan for the what if they don't know the when.

But as the minutes of the day ticked by, my family was able to see the hand of someone who did know the what and the when...and who had planned accordingly.

First, a nurse in my uncle's congregation was able to diagnose his symptoms quickly and drive him directly to the hospital. Then, unlike most weekends, there weren't a lot of people waiting in the ER so my uncle could be attended to immediately. And what's more, a cardiologist "just so happened" to be in the hospital, meaning the surgery to remove the heart blockage wasn't delayed by waiting for a doctor to arrive.

Three "coincidences"? No. Three hand prints of God.

God knew my uncle would suffer a heart attack this morning. And He prepared the way so that my uncle's heart suffered possibly little to no damage.

This is what author and Bible study leader Kay Arthur calls the "previousness of God."

In essence, our God knows the past, the present, and the future. And because He knows all, He previously plans for these moments that will come in a fallen world. He previously spins every piece of creation in perfectly-timed motion so that it works with His overall kingdom plan.

Consider the story of Lazarus.

John tells us that Mary and Martha's brother, Lazarus, became very sick, so sick that "the sisters sent word to Jesus, 'Lord, the one you love is sick'" (John 11:3).

Lazarus was more than a little sick. He was dying. And he apparently died not long after the message was sent because when Jesus came back in town, Lazarus had already lay in the tomb "four days" (v. 38).

So why wait until Lazarus was on death's door to ask for help?

Perhaps it was because the sisters understood theimportance of Christ's ministry. Perhaps they understood the danger in Jesus returning to Jerusalem where the Jews sought to destroy Him. Or perhaps they simply didn't want to bother Him with an illness that might heal itself.

Whatever the case, Mary and Martha did finally send word. Whether they expected Jesus to hurry back and heal Lazarus in person or whether they thought Jesus would do some long-distance healing, surely they expected Jesus to do something!

But Jesus did nothing!!

Instead, Scripture says, "when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days" (v. 6). And what's more, He told His disciples Lazarus' sickness was "for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it" and "so that you may believe" (v. 4, 14).

Jesus deliberately waited so that others would believe Him to be Lord of both the living and of the dead. The Jews believed after death, a soul hovered near the body for three days and then departed the body on the fourth day with no possibility for return. By waiting until the fourth day, Jesus was demonstrating His power over death.

Mary and Martha, though, greeted Jesus like most of us would: "'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died'" (v. 21, 32). These words speak to the sisters' faith in Jesus' power to heal. But Mary's accompanying weeping also makes these words ring of criticism and grief.

Scripture then describes "the people" God had lined up for this private miracle viewing included "many Jews [who] had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother" (v. 19).

Then, when everything was perfectly aligned to accomplish God's chief objective, Jesus called, "'Lazarus, come out!'" (v. 44). And he did.

Could Jesus have just healed Lazarus in the first place? Yes. Could God have stopped my uncle from having a heart attack? Definitely.

But as hard as it is for us to conceive in our flesh that hurts and weeps hot tears of sorrow and shivers with cold fear--it's not just about us. And it's never just a "single" event.

Lazarus' sickness, death, the subsequent waiting, and the audience--all of it was carefully orchestrated by God for His glory so that others would come to believe in Jesus, the Son.

That's what it's really about. God being glorified.

God knows what will happen in your life and in my life. Bad days will come. Sorrow will overwhelm us at times. And yet in everything, God is there, working all things together for our eternal good.

God's invisible hand prints abound in all things.

Sometimes, we just have to look a little harder to see them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Trust Fall

When I was a teenager, THE thing to do in summer was attend Centrifuge, a Christian "camp" which didn't come anywhere close to meeting Webster's definition of camping. We slept in soft bunk beds, ate three hot meals a day, and shied away from the jellyfish-filled beach waters at Gulf Shores, Mississippi.

One camp activity I remember vividly was called the trust fall. Each person took turns standing on a 4 foot short wall, locked her legs and body like a stiff corpse, and fell straight backwards into two facing rows of arms.

Even though I watched some pretty hefty boys complete the trust fall, I knew I was no feather, so I was the last one in my group to be pressured into trying it. Up on the wall, I somehow convinced myself to tip backwards and start the fall, but then I had second thoughts, bent my knees, and ended up more in a sitting position.

While I have never tried a physical trust fall again, I've found myself falling backwards repeatedly into my heavenly Father's waiting hands ever since.

Sometimes, the wall has been so high that even when I peeked over my shoulder, I couldn't see His waiting hands below. But I could hear His voice telling me He would catch me. I simply had to gulp down my fear and act on faith.

One such instance was when I quit my full time, secure job following the birth of my first son. I had known for years God wanted me to be a stay-at-home mother. But when that time came, I was afraid. Not only would my quitting mean we would be a one-income family, but I had always been the biggest breadwinner, my job was the only one that provided health insurance, and my husband's promising legal career was dust.

Despite my fears, I obeyed God's voice, trusting that He would catch me. And over the course of the next few years, God turned a tiny part-time teaching position into a blessing I could never have imagined where I now can teach as many online classes from home as I can fit in my schedule.

My situation is not unique among Christians. The Bible is full of men and women whom God called to act in faith, many times when they, too, could not see how it would turn out.

One man in particular fell backwards into God's waiting hands from a much greater height than I have ever plummeted from.


100 years old when he and Sarah became parents to Isaac--the promised child through whom Abraham would become the "father of many nations." And then God commanded Abraham to an awesome act of faith: "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about" (Gen. 22:2).

This mother would have asked God to repeat Himself not once but many, many times. But Abraham? Scripture doesn't show him questioning God at all. It simply says "Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey" (v. 3).

At the crack of dawn, with no outward hesitation, Abraham was cutting wood and starting on a journey to make the largest leap of faith in his life--sacrificing his son, his future.

Wasn't this asking too much? How many proofs of his faith did God require from him?

Already, Abraham had obeyed when God said, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you" (Gen 12:1). Not knowing exactly where he would end up, he and Sarah packed up and set out across the hot, sandy desert.

And now, he set out again, walking three days to the mountain. Three days, one footprint of faith in front of the other because he believed "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering" (Gen. 22:8).

Atop the mountain, God waited as Abraham arranged the stones into an altar and placed on top the wood he had chopped, himself. God even waited as Abraham bound his son and lay him on the altar of sacrifice.

And then, oh then, Abraham "reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son" (v. 10).

Surely, as he raised the knife, Abraham felt like he was falling.

Would God catch him by providing a ram in this last second? Or would God catch him by resurrecting Isaac from the dead? Either way, Abraham trusted God to fulfill the covenant He had made earlier.

And although Abraham never brought the knife down into Isaac, his heart must have already taken the plunge in faith...for God saw that faithful heart, provided a sacrificial ram in the thicket, and sent an angel to stop him, saying, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (v. 12).

Relocating, changing jobs, or giving up some other security blanket--God calls each Christian to have faith that He knows what is best for us and that He only has our best eternal interests at heart.

It may be terrifying. It may mean we give up family, friends, or even a country. But God wants to be the only set of hands our heart trusts completely in to catch us in this life and in the next. He wants to be our only security.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Word Play: Calling a Spade a Spade

To have a highly commercialized, supposedly “recession proof” holiday that celebrates an emotion still seems odd to me. On Valentine's Day, American households overflowed with hearts, flowers, stuffed animals, jewelry, and cards with words meant to make us feel loved.

But if you can look past the materialism, the continued existence of this holiday implies that people need a reminder to show and express love to others.

The reason? Love doesn’t come naturally. At least, a totally selfless love like Jesus showed us on the cross doesn’t.

As Christians, even with the Holy Spirit residing within us, we struggle against our flesh to love other humans as He loved--with selfless abandon.

And if we have trouble selflessly loving the talking, walking bodies around us, you can bet it’s even more difficult to love God with our everything when we can’t even picture His actual face.

As such, it is difficult to fully obey the command to: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

But despising the Lord? Well, that’s easier than you might think.

A few months ago, I wrote on King David and his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. A man whom God proclaimed was “a man after My own heart” (Acts 13:22). A man who walked with God in such an intimate relationship that the book of Psalms lays bare a level of love for God that I long to have.

Yet, in the midst of loving God, David loved his flesh more. He saw, took, and impregnated Bathsheba in an act of adultery. And when his sin was about to be discovered, he sent her husband, Uriah, to the front lines, sealing that man’s death before taking Bathsheba as his wife.

How he thought he’d get away with it is beyond me. And in the depths of his heart, I think he probably didn’t. But outwardly, David was proceeding through life as if nothing had happened, as if he weren’t guilty of adultery and murder. So, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David.

Nathan didn’t pull any punches with his words either: “Why have you despised the word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Sam. 12:9-10, my Italics).

Despised. The word means “to hold in contempt…to hold in disdain, to disrespect”*

God used this same word earlier when talking about those who sin “intentionally” or “defiantly.” God says, “the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him" (Num. 15:30-31, my Italics).

To willfully, intentionally sin when knowing it goes against God’s commands—that’s what it means to “despise” God.

Ouch. Our culture doesn’t want to use such harsh words like “despise.” We want to call our sin a “mistake,” a “lack of self control,” or a “lapse in judgment.”

But God doesn’t play the politically-correct-pass-the-buck game. His words are precise and accurate, even if they make us squirm in our seats.

Any time we intentionally go against God’s commands, we are choosing to despise God.

Can you grasp the severity of that?

In Malachi, God asks a question I think He could easily have written for Christians today: “A son honoreth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honor? And if I be a master, where is my fear? Saith the LORD of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name” (1:6). In Christ, we are a kingdom of priests; this question applies to us.

We must be careful to not let our concept of sin be influenced by the world’s attempt to “rename” sins. It may sound more palatable and less personally convicting to minimize our sins—to call adultery an “indiscretion,” to call homosexuality an “alternative lifestyle,” to call lying “a partial truth,” or to call blasphemy a “slip of the tongue.”

But God calls it sin. God calls it despising Him.

What we call it doesn’t matter.

*The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. AMG Publishers, 2003: 125.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Casual Cross-Wearing

A former mistress shares the details of her affair on public television. Her words, I won't remember beyond tomorrow. But her image, I won't soon forget.

It's not her sun-streaked hair or her understated make-up. Not a facial deformity or a particularly stunning outfit.

No. Instead, it's the delicate, golden cross that dangles from her neck and rests against an inverted triangle of pale flesh, perfectly framed by a black v-neck blouse. The stark contrast of black and white directs attention to the cross and causes me to gasp.

Last week, we discussed this image as it hints at taking pride in our sin, at glorifying the sin instead of the One who forgives it.

This week, this same image speaks of a different issue--of how serious it is to wear the cross of Jesus.

In recent years, the cross has become more of a mindless decoration like hearts and arrows at Valentines' Day or chicks and eggs at Easter. Hung on the walls of our houses, plastered across t-shirts, and stuck as decals on our vehicles--you don't have to look far to see a stylized version of the cross of Calvary.

But even though it's been marketed as "decorative" to the masses, the cross still holds serious meaning to most.

To me, the cross symbolizes my Savior's death, His sacrifice to save me from my sin and from separation from a holy God, from eternal death. Even though non-Christians may not accept this meaning entirely, they do still equate (and expect) higher moral living from one who claims and wears the cross.

I, myself, wear a cross around my neck most days. In doing so, I am saying, "I am a Christian." Each time I touch it, I remember just how much my Savior has done for me, how He will get me through whatever problem I'm facing at that moment, and how I need to keep Him front and center throughout the 24 hours in each day.

I don't think there is anything wrong with wearing a cross--whether on my van, my body, or my doorpost.

Yet, when I do so, I must be aware that I am equating my actions with Christ in a very visual way.

Granted, once one accepts Christ as Savior and Lord, her every action is scrutinized by a public who expects her to achieve instant Christ-like perfection. But with a cross around her neck, even those who don't know her personally are aware of her stand for Christ, and you can bet they're just waiting for the chance to criticize a Christian as a hypocrite.

This is why my skin crawls when I see someone glorifying in his/her sin while wearing that cross.

Paul warns in Philippians 3, "many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame" (18b-19).

John MacArthur explains, "Implied in Paul's language is that these men did not claim to oppose Christ, His work on the Cross, or salvation by grace alone through faith alone, but they did not pursue Christlikeness in manifest godliness. Apparently, they were posing as friends of Christ...."*

In essence, to boast or "glory" in one's sin and "shame" while claiming freedom in Christ is an abuse of the cross and, perhaps, reveals that person as a true enemy of the cross.

But I don't think this is the case with all. Instead, I believe many have naively bought into the notion that a cross can be "just" a casual decoration. And as such, they do not consider the seriousness of sporting a cross while sinning or rattling off about their sin.

But Jesus, Himself, warns about our Christian witness faltering so that it causes others in Christ to sin: "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matt. 18:6).

In other words, we, as fellow believers, are better off dead rather than to lead someone into sin. And I'm afraid boasting in our sin while wearing a cross does just that.

It's an admonition for us all--to wear the cross of Jesus proudly,yes. But to also understand there is no such thing as casual-cross wearing. We must all live carefully, being ever vigilant in how we present Christ to an always-watching sea of eyes.

*John MacArthur. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Thomas Nelson, 2005.