Sunday, August 29, 2010

Standing in the Gap for the Anonymous

It's always been troubling to me. The dozens of people who have passed through my life, most not even leaving a shadow of remembrance behind.

What about them? What happens when I forget their names? And what if I never knew them to begin with? There are literally faceless hundreds we pass each week as we shop in stores, drive down the highways, or sit to eat in restaurants?

As believers, we are admonished to pray for each other, but to pray for the lost souls more than anything. Yet, how can we effectively pray for those we don't know?

When I get to the part of my prayers where I pray for the lost peoples of the earth, it always seems so forced, like those words are merely bouncing off the ceiling. Some days, voicing the words, "I pray Father for you to redeem the lost" seems so cliche, so empty.

And yet, In Psalms 106, David relates the story of Israel and those who effectively stood in the gap for the multitudes of Israelites, most of whom were probably nameless to the prayer warriors.

In the midst of a history heavy laden with words like sin, iniquity, wickedness, and rebellion to describe the Israelites' post-enslavement-in-Egypt life, David first presents Moses' prayers for the unrighteous: "Therefore He [God] said that He would destroy them, Had not Moses His chosen one stood in the breach before Him, To turn away His wrath from destroying them" (Ps. 106:23).

It's a three step process. God wanted to destroy the unrighteous. Moses prayed for God's people, stood in the "breach" or "gap" between holiness and sinfulness. And God turned from His anger.

Scripture recounts that when leaving Egypt, there were "about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children" (Ex. 12:37). Donald Redford's Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times extrapolates from this figure that the total number of Israelites fleeing Egypt was around 2.5 million.

Knowing the numbers, Moses could not have known the name of every one of those individuals. Yet he prayed for them as a whole...and God heard.

Later in the same chapter, David recounts more evil among the Israelites. This time, God threatened to destroy them all with a plague: "Then Phinehas stood up and interposed, And so the plague was stayed" (Ps. 106:30).

Again, one man, Aaron's grandson, stood in the gap for the nameless millions of God's people. And it was an effective prayer.

As I read through the remaining eighteen verses, I kept looking for another named man who begged God to save His people. My vision was so narrow that I almost missed it:

"Nevertheless He [God] looked upon their distress When He heard their cry; And He remembered His covenant for their sake, And relented according to the greatness of His lovingkindness" (v. 44-45).

The pronoun "their" implies that an unnamed "they" interceded on Israel's behalf, and God was merciful.

This is you. This is me. We are that "they."

Perhaps we will not play a significant enough role in God's plan to have our individual names listed when what's to come is finally written down as history. Yet, even if you and I are lumped together under the heading of a vague pronoun, our role as gap-standers is still important.

Likewise, that we pray and what we pray for the lost masses is important to God. It may not feel like it at times, especially when the rest of our prayer time is spent raising specific names and needs to God's throne.

But God hears each word. God knows each name.

Keep standing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Our Daily What?

My husband and I have been married almost ten years this December, and dated four years before that. Fourteen years together--and yet, every once in awhile, my eyebrows will raise as I blurt out, "You never told me that before!" Whether it's a childhood story his mother relates to me or a letter to the editor I discover he had published, there is still mystery in our marriage.

While I may sometimes be deluded into thinking I can't be surprised by my husband, I am not under that illusion when it comes to Scripture. Instead, I'm well aware of the untold number of mysteries that abound within its pages.

Even still, I'm somehow always surprised when God pierces another hole through the dark glass, giving light to those more-than-common passages that mindlessly roll off my tongue.

The model prayer Jesus gave His disciples is a passage I could recite even with my twins "singing" off key at the top of their lungs: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread..." (Matt. 6:9-11).

This past week, I was divinely appointed to read these verses in conjunction with a passage from just two chapters earlier when Satan tempted Jesus. Overcoming one temptation, Jesus replied by quoting from the Old Testament (Deut. 8:3): "'It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'" (Matt. 4:4). In other words, physical bread isn't enough to sustain the soul (and body as well). Instead, we need the Word.

The disciple John stated first in his epistle that Jesus was the Word of God made flesh (Jn. 1:1). Then, I remembered Jesus saying, "I am the bread of life" (Jn. 6:35).

Jesus is the Word. Jesus is the bread of heaven.

I had always assumed that "our daily bread" in the model prayer was a request to the Father to take care of our physical needs. And I still believe that to be partly true. Yet, when I pulled out the concordance and started looking at all the New Testament verses about "bread," the term seems to also be referring to something more than just physical sustenance.

Since Jesus is our mediator to the Father, I wonder if the prayer isn't a request for Jesus as our daily bread, our daily Word from God, providing us with everything we need--both physical and spiritual.

In that case, I could just pray instead, "Give us this day our daily Jesus."

Yes. Give me my daily Jesus.

(And many thanks to my love for posting last week when I was in the land of no Internet.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

"I was looking back to see / If you were looking back to see / If I was looking back to see / If you were looking back at me. " Buck Owens

Jennifer is visiting her grandmother in Michigan this week, and in her absence she has graciously indulged and entrusted me, her husband, with this week’s posting. Jennifer is a living embodiment of a Proverbs 31 woman, and I can only hope to impart some small measure of the passion for the Scripture she conveys in this space each week.

About a year ago I found a dear friend from my childhood church on Facebook. In a series of emails sent over the course of several days, we discussed our upbringing and how it had shaped us into the adults we now are.

As children we were both most assuredly taught that salvation was wholly a work of grace. Yet, much as the Galatians to whom Paul wrote, we were somehow left believing salvation came through grace plus something else. In our case, “something else” was adherence to a strict moral code, eschewing the “world” and its pleasures.

Several months before meeting this friend, I had an epiphany in which I finally began to realize the true impart and meaning of Ephesians 2:8 (“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”). Put simply, I realized for the first time that I could not do anything to merit salvation. It was and is a gift from God extended to undeserving man (i.e., me).

After sharing my new-found dénouement with this childhood friend, she, in turn, pointed me to her own realization of this same thought as seen in Micah 6:8 (“He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?”). Again, the focus is not upon adherence to laws and strictures but upon the grace of God extended to undeserving (but compliant) mankind.

Against the backdrop of this freely-bestowed grace, the reality of Romans 3:10 literally stings the ears: “[A]s it is written, ‘THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE.’” See, e.g., Psalm 14:1, 53:1. The Apostle Paul’s statement, borrowed from King David, makes it clear that I cannot possibly hope to attain righteousness. If David, a man after God’s own heart (I Samuel 13:14), and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13), could not achieve righteousness, what chance do I have?

Yet, miraculously, a thrice-holy God has extended the miracle of salvation to me. How? Why? And what’s up with the title of this posting anyway? Glad you asked.

It all started (where else?) in the Garden of Eden. There, the Bible recounts: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him.” Genesis 1:27. Thus, when God communed with Adam and Eve before the Fall, He was in some strange, indefinable way, interacting with a visual representation of Himself. He was, in effect, looking into a mirror, seeing Himself portrayed through Adam and Eve. Yet, that “image of God” as portrayed through pre-Fall mankind was broken when sin and death entered the world.

In the moments following the Fall, God undertook to make “garments of skin for Adam and his wife…” (Genesis 3:21), thus shedding the blood of animals—a type and foretelling of the coming crucifixion of Christ many thousands of years later. Indeed, the Bible recounts what could only have been millions of slain lambs over the course of human history from the Fall to the crucifixion—all looking forward to Christ and his redemptive work at Calvary. This covering thus shielded Adam and Eve and their descendants from God’s full gaze—and kept God from seeing Himself reflected in mankind.

When Moses prayed and asked to see God’s glory, he was permitted to see God’s back only: “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Exodus 33:20. Yet, if it is to be noticed, Moses was hidden within the cleft of a rock—a foretelling of “Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,” (Ephesians 2:20)—and covered with God’s hand until He passed by. Exodus 33:22. Thus, not only was God hidden from Moses’ view, Moses himself was also hidden from God’s view. The blood, the rock, and the hand all prevented God from seeing through to the sinful condition of mankind, to the “broken mirror” of man himself.

The miracle of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection has filled the libraries of the world, and I could hardly add to the scholarship in this short missive. It suffices to note that Christ came as “the exact representation of [God’s] nature.” Hebrews 1:3 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Colossians 1:15. Further, Christ also came in the “likeness of sinful flesh.” Romans 8:3. Christ, it could be said, is the exact replica and duplicate of both God and man.

That same Christ has now been interposed between sinful man and God. Romans 8:34. Now, when God looks at mankind he sees Christ, and when man looks at God, he (man) also sees Christ.

Thus it is that when we see Christ, we see ourselves the way God sees us. We look into the mirror of what we can be in Christ Jesus, and God looks into what we are by His own grace manifested to undeserving mankind through His son. It is in this way that Ephesians 2:8 comes alive in our hearts and lives—“lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” I Corinthians 1:17 KJV.

On this early Monday morning (or whenever this post may find you), be encouraged, and if your mirrors have proven unkind, take heart: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection…” Romans 6:5. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” II Corinthians 5:17.

Regardless of what you see in the mirror, God looks at you and sees Himself!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Gays, Feminists, Democrats, and Christians

My first reaction wasn't shock or anger. It was a swirled mixture of disappointment and sadness, that sinking hopeless kind of feeling as if someone were standing above me pressing down on my shoulders.

It was just last August that I read New Orleans author Anne Rice's Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, a compelling memoir tracing the winding path that took her from atheism to faith in Jesus. For those of us who believe Jesus is the only way to eternal salvation, such stories are heartwarming ones of God's grace and mercy.

And here I am, literally almost one year later, wondering what went wrong, wondering if Rice ever really completely repented and submitted her life to Christ or if she simply submitted her life to the church.

If you haven't heard, on July 28, Anne Rice made a big splash on the public scene, this time not for her vampire novels (which were all the rage before the Twilight series was a twinkling), and not for shocking abandonment of atheism for Christianity as she did in 2008. No, this time, Anne Rice ruffled feathers by posting on her Facebook page that she was leaving Christianity:

Rice wrote, "Today I quit being a Christian ... It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else." Then, she wrote, "As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of ...Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

It's just semantics, an oxymoron in one sense--being a part of Christ but not a Christian. And yet, the words "follower of Christ" and "Christian" aren't synonymous anymore. While the two should have the same definition, the second has become more of a tag, easily stitched to a garment for awhile and then removed after a few washes.

Sadly, I don't have to wonder too hard to understand what's caused Rice to flee Christianity--it's putting one's faith in people. It's putting one's faith in "religion" with all the negative connotations the word summons.

When one sees visions of lying, conniving, cursing girls on the TV screen say, "I'm gonna win because God is on my side," it's easy to see how someone might confuse "follower of Christ" with "Christian." It's equally easy to condemn all of Christianity when one looks at "churches" who purport to bear the label "Christian" but spew from their pulpits lessons of bigotry, hate, and an "I'm right and you're wrong" stance.

But while these images have caused Anne Rice (and likely many others) to rip the scarlet "C" from her breast, they merely leave me clinging to Christ more fiercely.

The reasoning is simple. Putting my faith in Jesus? He can't fail me. Putting faith in humans, in religious organizations? That will only lead to disappointment.

As a follower of Christ, I must look to Him, the "Word made flesh"--and ONLY Him--for instruction in how I should live my life (Jn. 1:14). I must look to the Word of God--not to social issues--to determine if I am following in HIS footsteps or forging a path of my own. To do otherwise would mean I am not a follower of Christ and that Christ is not "central to my life."

Additionally, once I submit myself to Christ, I must agree with Him about what constitutes sin (even if that's not socially or politically correct). But I must leave the judgment of sin to God and, instead, must demonstrate His love to all--even those who live in various sins--and work on getting the plank out of my own eye before trying to remove the "speck from [my] brother's eye" (Matt. 7:5).

In a way, following Christ, claiming the tag of "Christian," should boil down to two things, which Jesus stated very clearly:

"YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF" (Matt. 22:37-39).

Unlike Rice, I will continue to claim the label Christian, defined as it was intended to be--as one who is totally sold out and submitted unto Christ.

Yet my definition doesn't necessarily meet the restrictions she places upon it...

Although I believe God is the creator and sustainer of the entire universe, I am not anti-Science.

Although I believe The Bible teaches homosexuality is a sin, I am not anti-gay any more than I am anti-adultery or anti-lying or anything else The Word teaches will keep me from the eternity of heaven (1 Cor. 6).

Although I believe wives should submit to their husbands and husbands should equally submit to their wives as Christ submitted Himself to the church, I am not anti-feminist.

I choose to look to Christ and not to others who have warped the definition of the term "Christian". And I choose to continue to carry the label "Christian" in hopes that if enough of us look to Christ for our example, then one day, it will actually mean what it's supposed to mean.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Twice in a Lifetime

God speaks. Through his Word, prayer, visions, dreams, or the Godly arranging of life’s circumstances—Christians believe God speaks directly to them as part of their personal relationship with the Father and Son.

And were you to ask any of us, deep down, we have difficulty with those dry spells when God is silent. The writing world is filled with words exploring those deserts.

As God’s children, we’re taught to live out Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” And so we bring everything before the Father’s throne—every petition, every request, every decision we need to make.

Then, we’re many times disappointed because the kind of God we want is one who readily responds with “yes,” or “no” answers, one who gives 24-hour call-backs, one who speaks in clear 20th-century-ese instead of cryptic ancient Hebrew or Greek. In essence, we want a man-made God who thinks like us, not an Alpha and Omega God who strives to transform us to think like Him.

The interesting thing is that in my own life and in the lives of others, I’ve seen that even when God does reveal Himself to us on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis, it’s not enough. We want the communication to be easier, faster, more plentiful. So, we read books and attend seminars to learn how to hear God speak. We look at others who are receiving fresh revelations from God and wonder what they have that we don’t.

And yet, I think we’re getting it all wrong.

The more I look at individuals throughout Scripture, I see stories of men and women who had a healthy relationship with God—but I don’t see where God spoke to them every single day in a “Here’s your simple answer” kind of way.

Yes, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Ps. 19:1-2). God speaks as God each day. But, the intimate speech of relationship isn’t nearly as prolific.

Those times when God doesn’t speak, those “dry spells.” Isn’t that the foundation of faith? Believing in something I cannot hear, see, or feel? I believe so.

Consider one verse, one of those I normally gloss over, even if I’m familiar with the names: “The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel” (Hos. 1:1).

I know historians argue over exact dates, but approximates are good enough for me. One chart gives these dates for the four kings listed above:

Uzziah, King of Judah 790-739 BC
(Jeroboam II, King of Israel) (793-753 BC)
Jotham, King of Judah 750-731 BC
Ahaz, King of Judah 735-715 BC

The Lord’s first words to Hosea were “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife,” implying that he was of marrying age. Add that number to possibly 75 years living in the midst of the four named kings, and you have a lifetime.

Do you see what that means?

God spoke to Hosea all his life, making his entire life an allegory, a message to Israel.

But even though God spoke to Hosea for that many years, His words seem to have been few. Hosea wasn’t a prolific writer. His God-given Word to the people only covers nine pages in my Bible. And critics disagree as to whether those nine pages are composed of two or four messages from God.

Think of it: a prophet of God, one holy enough to make the pages of Scripture--he may have only received two messages from God over the course of an entire lifetime.

God will continue to speak to His children throughout their lives if they will stay devoted and listening. That is comforting. But, God may not speak a novel to each person.

Some of us will simply be required to live by faith for much longer stretches between messages.