Sunday, September 26, 2010

If You're Not Dead Yet

Several teenage girls sprayed their hair an all-too-mature shade of gray. One twisted hers up in a severe-looking bun and draped a brown, crocheted shawl around her falsely-hunched shoulders. Another wore thick, large glasses too big for her narrow face and stood, leaning heavily on a well-worn, wooden cane. Yet another held a set of dentures in her hands as all stood close together in a line, nervously giggling in dowdy, floor-length dresses.

As the crowd eagerly listened, each of these faux sages began to recite a few lines of a poem about aging that has remained in my head since I was in elementary school:

"Old age is golden, or so I’ve heard said, / But sometimes I wonder, as I crawl into bed, / With my ears in a drawer, my teeth in a cup, / My eyes on the table until I wake up. / As sleep dims my vision, I say to myself: / Is there anything else I should lay on the shelf?..."

The poem then ends with the lines, "I get up each morning and dust off my wits, / Open the paper, and read the Obits. / If I’m not there, I know I’m not dead, / So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed!"

As expected, the poem garnered many a laugh, but it also harbored an accepted truth that's not so funny--the worthlessness of the aged.

I may only be thirty-three, but I'm already finding more gray hairs than my tweezers can pluck. It concerns me that one day, I may not be considered relevant just because I have more gray than brown hair.

But if I stand on God's word, I needn't worry about the last third of my life.

In fact, in Psalm 71, a man after God's own heart, King David, expresses concern that life in his old age isn't how he planned it to be. His enemies are still attacking; he isn't living in the luxury of a trouble-free existence; his physical strength is failing.

And so in his old age, he calls out to God, reminding God (and most likely himself, too) that God has been there "continually" throughout David's life. In verse six, David speaks of how God has "sustained [him] from birth." He then remembers that God was the "confidence from my youth" (v. 5)

In his heart, he knows that God has been with him from birth to youth to old age and will still be with him even now. To prove this, three times in this chapter, David uses the word "continually."

David first asks God to remain with him: "Be to me a rock of habitation to which I may continually come" (v. 3). Then, he reminds God that he has faithfully followed Him and still does: "My praise is continually of You" (v. 6). And, finally, David proclaims that he "will hope continually" in God" (v. 14, all my italics).

Here, David's use of the future tense "will hope" shows that his head knows God is faithful and will continue to be faithful. Yet, even though David knows in his head that God is always faithful and never changing, that still doesn't mean his flesh doesn't rise up and give him cause to worry, especially when the circumstances around him don't look too good for an old man.

As such, David's human emotions seep through his simple request: "Do not cast me off in the time of old age;Do not forsake me when my strength fails" (v. 9).

He repeats this request again in verse eighteen, but this time explains why he's asking God to take care of him now: "And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, Until I declare Your strength to this generation, Your power to all who are to come" (v. 18, my italics).

David knew he was relevant. Gray hair, arthritic knees, dim vision and all, he knew he still had something to give back to God--his testimony to "this generation"

A few verses earlier, David explained just what exactly he wanted to declare in that testimony: "My mouth shall tell of Your righteousness And of Your salvation all day long; For I do not know the sum of them" (v. 15).

David had to tell about God's blessings of salvation simply because they were limitless.

Matthew Henry's words are so powerful in explaining this Psalm: "The psalmist declares that the righteousness of Christ, and the great salvation obtained thereby, shall be the chosen subject of his discourse. Not on a sabbath only, but on every day of the week, of the year, of his life. Not merely at stated returns of solemn devotion, but on every occasion, all the day long. Why will he always dwell on this? Because he knew not the numbers thereof. It is impossible to measure the value or the fulness of these blessings. The righteousness is unspeakable, the salvation everlasting. God will not cast off his grey-headed servants when no longer capable of labouring as they have done. The Lord often strengthens his people in their souls, when nature is sinking into decay. And it is a debt which the old disciples of Christ owe to succeeding generations, to leave behind them a solemn testimony to the advantage of religion, and the truth of God's promises; and especially to the everlasting righteousness of the Redeemer."

Young or old. Blond, gray, or no hair. In the prime of your life or decaying. If you're not dead yet, you have a mission. I have a mission. A "continually" kind of mission.

Every day of every week of every month of every year--to testify of God's righteousness and salvation...because the blessings of His salvation are without limit.

Those blessings aren't just what God has saved you from in the past. They also include what he is saving you from in the future, paths of sin we will never even know we avoided if we abide in Him.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Gagging on God's Word

My pastor describes it as standing beneath a waterfall, the weight of the falling water pounding down over and around you as you stand on the rocks beneath, arm outstretched, trying to fill your cup. Simple physics says most of the never-ending stream of water will pass you by, failing to quench your thirst. Yet, drenched and weak from standing in the torrential downpour, you're thankful for what little bit remains in the cup for you to drink.

This is what it's like to read and seek to understand God's word.

These past two weeks, though, my interaction with the Word has looked a bit different. I stand beneath the waterfall, but with no cup. Instead, my mouth is wide open as I try to consume the big things of God. Much like my oldest son playing in the water sprinkler, each time I try to swallow, the water just won't go down my throat--it's too much for me to handle, and I gag in confusion.

Gagging on God's Word. It may not be an image we're comfortable with in relation to our interaction with the Word. Yet, if we're honest with ourselves (and if we don't pick and choose which Scriptures we read or dwell upon), there are plenty of passages in the Bible that make us pause, scratch our heads in confusion, and yes, gag, as we try to wrap our heads around a truth much too big for our finite minds to fathom.

Predestination. Faith and works. God's complete sovereignty and control over all sin while not being evil or sinful Himself. God giving saving faith and man accepting that faith even though Scripture says one can do nothing in herself to be saved. Being content in circumstances while praying earnestly about all things (like those circumstances).

It's topics like these that some Christians make sure to take the long way around, even if it means skipping entire books of the Bible. Others just merely accept without much thought the tension between the seeming opposites, calmly filing these topics away in the "unknowable" folder of their mind.

I understand that. God said through the prophet Isaiah, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Is. 55:9).

But does that mean we just don't try, that if after hours and hours of study, the Spirit still hasn't revealed the truth to us, we just give up? Do we simply avoid those mysteries that just might stay a mystery until God reveals Himself to us beyond the grave? Should we not strive to understand how seemingly opposite verses are held in perfect tension by our awesome God?

I'm uncomfortable with a "closed" file I tuck Scriptures away in just because they make me uneasy, cause me to question who God is, or make my head pound as my mind truly strives to understand the incomprehensible.

Also, Paul tells us God planned to reveal His mysterious wisdom to us even before the world was created: "No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began" (1 Cor. 2:7, my italics).

Before the Garden of Eden. Before the stars. Before time itself--God wanted me to know Him. He wanted me to understand the deep mysteries of Him, to gain His "wisdom."

The word wisdom, as used in the New Testament, has several definitions. One is "skills in the affairs of life, practical wisdom, wise management as shown in forming the best plans and selecting the best means, including the idea of sound judgment and good sense." The second definition is, "In a higher sense, wisdom, deep knowledge, natural and moral insight, learning, science, implying cultivation of mind and enlightened understanding."

Both definitions seem to fit together, the second implying both the attainment of knowledge and the first the ability to apply it. In short, "In respect to divine things, wisdom, knowledge, insight, deep understanding, represented everywhere as a divine gift, and including the idea of practical application."**

To that end--of obtaining and applying Godly knowledge--God gave us the Spirit, which "searches all things, even the deep things of God" (v. 10). Those "deep things" are not revealed to us all at once, though. Paul states, "This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words" (v. 13)

Two times in the previous verse, Paul uses the word "taught." Here, the Spirit is the great teacher, instructing us, giving us understanding as we move forward in our Christian walk.

If I've learned anything as a teacher, it's that learning takes time. Even geniuses don't just learn everything there is to know overnight. In fact, the term "lifelong learner" has become fashionable over the past decade, promoting the concept that one never ceases to learn.

The same is true of God and His Word. His Spirit will teach us the deep truths of God, but not all at once and not even all while we are here on earth. Yes, while we may sometimes think of death as the end, it is really just the continuation of our Christian walk, merely face to face with our Creator instead of through a dark glass. Perhaps, even our learning will continue throughout eternity.

I don't know all the reasons why God doesn't immediately reveal Himself in His entirety to each Christian. Perhaps it's because we're not really ready for all the "solid food" of God that we think we're ready for.

Whatever the reason, that doesn't mean we just stop trying to understand the deep things of God through the Spirit. To do so would mean less knowledge of who God is, and that would mean less knowledge to apply in our attempt to live Godly lives.

For now, I'll keep standing beneath that waterfall, mouth wide open to whatever pours in. I may gag every now and then, but with the knowledge that if I step out of the downpour of His living water, I'll miss the clean, refreshing Words that He will choose to teach and reveal to me.
**(Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. 1301).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dreaming of Another Season

Looking up, I saw the van's thermometer registered a sweltering 98. Just another day in a long, humid string made unbearable by an early-September heat wave.

While September 22 is the official first day of fall, I've spent my summer longing for the hot season to end and this next cooler season to engulf me. And I must confess: with each passing day, I'm getting more antsy.

The main problem is a few weeks ago, my children and I tasted those first hints of fall weather. We relished in cool mornings spent outdoors, unconcerned about how high the sun was in the sky above. "It's not too hot," my oldest repeatedly told me.

Full of hope for what was to come, we decorated the house for fall. Pilgrims and Indians now stand at attention before a ceramic turkey by the front door. Ruby and flame-orange-colored leaves twist up the stair rail and spill across the mantle. Faux pomegranates, grapes, and dried multi-colored corn still in brittle husks all spill forth from a woven cornucopia.

Wyatt told his daddy, "It's fall inside, but not fall outside yet." Then, last Thursday, he was overjoyed to find the first painted autumn leaves adorning the grass in our backyard. He, too, is catching fall-fever.

This waiting for something better, for the next season in life--sadly, it seems to describe me more than I want to admit.

For starters, as a Christian, I know there's a better place being prepared for me. And if I'm not too careful, it's all too easy to get so wrapped up in waiting for the abundant life in heaven that I just disregard the thought that there can be abundant life when I'm surrounded by such rampant sin here on this earth.

But more than that, Jesus told His disciples, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10:10). There is good reason to believe He wasn't just talking about an abundant life to come but also about abundant living now in Christ...and not just if your life is full of good circumstances, but if it's full of bad ones as well.

In the book of Ephesians, Paul is in prison. Talk about bad circumstances. Then, in Chapter 3, he spends the first nineteen verses expounding upon a seemingly impossible situation--unity between Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ. Paul states: "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (v. 6).

Although it may be difficult to conceive of in modern times, the mystery Paul refers to was ground-breaking news. As Bible study author and speaker Priscilla Shirer* explains this passage, it was as if Paul was suggesting the creation of a third "race" of believers that would include both Jews and Gentiles.

In Paul's time, non-Christian Jews and Gentiles didn't mix. And even Spirit-infused Christian Jews and Gentiles had problems with each other. Paul's writings are full of examples of Jews trying to infiltrate the Gentile Christian church and get them to become more "Jewish" in custom and doctrine. Also, both Jew and Gentile Christians were persecuted, stoned, and even killed. In short, it wasn't an easy thing to claim Christ.

Because of these hardships, such an idea of Christian unity in the church must have seemed impossible and unimaginable to Paul's original audience just as the idea of African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Caucasians living together in harmony seemed unimaginable to my American ancestors.

Even so, at the end of the chapter, Paul commands his readers to praise God in abundant living: "Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever" (v. 20-21).

In the midst of a life full of hardships and impossibilities, Paul admonishes Christians to live abundantly, knowing that God can make all things possible because He has the power.

Now is the time to start living in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Not when your (and my) children outgrow whatever horrid stage they're in right now. Not when your finances or the economy improve. Not when you are at the peak of health. Not when you're finished with school or have that dream job you've waited for or when you finally move to your dream destination or house.


Quit waiting for the next season. Quit waiting for all your impossibilities to become possible.

Winter, spring, summer, or fall--just live passionately, unashamedly for Christ and in God's possible-making power.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Trick to Remembering

One good thing about moving to a new house is the work-out it requires, and I’m not just talking about the physical part that always seem to pinpoint those rarely used muscles. Apart from packing boxes and toting around large pieces of furniture, the mental workout is almost as time consuming and sometimes just as strenuous.

A crumpled post-it note, a box of old cards, a “lost” baby toy now revealed—with each trigger uncovered, forgotten areas on my switchboard slough off the cobwebs to light up brightly once again. The memories can make me smile, cry, or laugh as well as feel anew a long-ago heart’s piercing or melting.

Although we might think we’re quite good at forgetting most days, our brains were made for remembering.

While it’s obvious that the ability to remember is important for untold reasons, God imparted two in particular to me this week.

First is remembering who God is. Psalm 111:4 says, “He has made His wonders to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and compassionate.” All of God’s creation from the single blade of grass to the highest mountain, from the fingers on a newborn’s hand to the toothless grin of a centurion—his wonders are intended to trigger our remembrance of who God is. He is the Alpha and Omega, the Creator of the universe who sustains His creation moment by moment. He is the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly holy, and merciful judge who does nothing against His true character and nothing that is not in our eternal best interests.

To remember who God is, is the only way to survive victoriously those daily circumstances that can lead to fleshly worry, fear, or disappointment.

Secondly is remembering who I am. In a letter to the Ephesians, Paul states, “Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh,…remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:11-13).

Here, he warns the Ephesians to not be too puffed up or prideful about their salvation, to not think they are better than others who remain lost in sin and disbelief.

We must never forget that we Christians, too, were once separated from the hope of eternity in Christ with nothing good in us to warrant that salvation. We must never forget that without the Holy Spirit residing within our souls, we would be held completely captive by our fleshly, sinful nature.

Without this remembrance of who we truly are without Christ residing within us, we might fail to thank Him daily for the gift He bestowed on us through His death. And what’s worse, we might fail to be merciful to others who are lost, choosing instead to haughtily criticize their immoral, sinful actions instead of praying for them and leading them in the right direction.

Help us, O Lord to always remember. We are mere sinners, thankfully saved by God’s grace. Nothing more.