Monday, December 26, 2011

What's in a Name

This morning after Christmas, I feel a bit like my preschoolers when their Uncle Johnathan comes home after months of anticipating his arrival, all of my little ones running around shouting, "He's here! He's here!"

For many of you, the excitement is over, maybe even exhaustion has set in, or perhaps even a bit of depression from the sudden drop in adrenaline and things to "do." Wrapping paper is crumpled in the trash, delectable treats all (hopefully) consumed, hidden surprises all revealed. For some, it's all over.

And yet, today should be more exciting than even yesterday. Christ's journey has only just begun. He's here! Christ. God with us.

That name--Emmanuel. God with Us. It's still important this side of the nativity...this side of the cross.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have a problem with choosing a name for their little babe in the feed trough. The angel had told them up front what the baby’s name would be: “and they will call him Immanuel—which means, ‘God with us’” (Matt 1:23).

The meaning of Jesus’ name was and is important because His very character was inscribed in His name. His name meant that as the second part of the trinity, He had left His heavenly home to physically come to earth and dwell among us in the flesh. He was 100% God. And yet He was also 100% human.

But why is this such a big deal? And for that matter, why did we need God to dwell with us anyway?

First, the fact that a sinless, holy God would see fit to dwell among sinful humanity blows my mind each time I think about it. There are many days when I want to cut myself totally off from the sin I see being so openly and guiltlessly flaunted in our society…and I’m a sinner, myself. But Jesus who was perfect chose to dwell here. That is incomprehensible.

As the disciple John said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14).

Secondly, God needed to dwell with us if we were ever going to be reconciled to God. His coming to earth and, ultimately, giving His life on the cross, bridged the gap between man and God the Father, whose relationship had been severed by an endless ocean of sin. Paul writes, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corr. 5:18-19).

Isaiah 9:6-7 prophesied His coming much earlier: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

Mary and Joseph couldn’t have possibly known all that their son’s name would mean for them and for all mankind. But through Scripture, we can understand more of how God is with us even still—the Holy Spirit that resides within us, Jesus who makes intercession for us with the Father...


God is with us as our counselor in times where life’s circumstances leave us questioning our next step.

God is with us as Prince of Peace when anxiety, uncertainty, or depression threatens to drown us.

God is wish us as mighty, everlasting king of all creation who will come again soon to reclaim His earthly throne.

This post-Christmas season, don't forget that Christmas is not over. It's only just begun. Even without the tinsel and holly, we must remember to continue giving thanks to God for His son, Jesus.

Immanuel. God’s word made flesh for you, for me.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Keeping Focused Down the Stretch

It's here, that final sprint towards the finish line, golden ribbon coming in sight near the horizon, beckoning us to hurry, hurry, hurry faster through the not-enough-hours-in-the-day burst towards Christmas Day.

It always surprises me, this week.

Even when I choose to make my Christmas smaller, focus on the fewer more meaningful traditions, do tasks earlier, make my gift giving smaller and an investment of myself. Even then, something sends me in a last minute scamper for the perfection I promised myself I wouldn't seek this year.

It might be a can of cream of shrimp soup I forgot when cream of mushroom would suffice. Or a friend coming into town who asks to squeeze into a calendar square. Or downloading a few more blasts from the past to put on my dad's very first Ipod.

Or perhaps it's nothing so trivial, but rather an addition of some act of service to show Jesus' love to others, like making that extra trip into town to deliver a gift card to grandparents who can't afford Christmas for the eleven year old girl they care for. Or stopping in my parking lot rush to dig deep for two wrinkled dollar bills to give the deaf Hispanic woman offering me a red pen, her hands reaching heavenward to sign "God bless."

Or maybe it's the unexpected--like my youngest son spiking 101 fever this evening, indicating something unseen is lurking, waiting for its own chance to usurp center stage. Or the death of a grandma in the middle of Saturday afternoon's bread baking, burial grief to come.

Tonight marks the fourth week of advent. During Week One, we focused on Christ being “our Hope.” During week two, the focus was on Jesus being "the Way." Last week, we sought to remember that Christ is "our Joy."

And now? In the blur of frantic rush, in the brittle unexpected, yes, even in heartache and darkness where death seems more my focus than life? Now, I, we must strive even harder to maintain focus, keep our eyes on the One lying in the manger.

This week, we must remember that Christ is our Peace.

The prophet Isaiah described the coming Messiah:

"For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;

And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Eternal Father, Prince of Peace

There will be no end to the increase of
His government or of peace..." (Is. 9:6).

In this poetic litany of adjectives, intentionally last in line, at the end is "Prince of Peace." Yet, the very next line shows it is not least in importance, the ultimate irony that in Christ, peace will ultimately have "no end".

As Christ prepared the disciples for His coming crucifixion, He sought to help them understand this concept, that even in His absence, they could still have His Peace within: "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. 'Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful'" (Jn. 14:26-27).

Christ was not leaving them alone but would provide the Holy Spirit as a comforter, as an indwelling Spirit to remind them that Christ is peace.

Peace is not a state of mind. It is not dependent on circumstances. Peace is trust in the person of Christ. He can give you and me peace not on either side of a storm but within its raging, not either side of an illness but in its feverish heights. It's all about where our focus is.

The prophet promised, "You [God] will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you" (Is. 26:3).

No matter what we think must be done this week, no matter what seeks to steal our peace or steal center stage, Christ made it clear to Martha: "only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her" (Lk. 10:42).

Only One thing is needed. Our focus to be on the Savior. On our Peace.

Image: "A Christmas Blur" from "Nell's Dish Du Jour"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Real Joy of the Season

The darkness ripples, its inky black turning a lighter hue of grey morning right before golden orb crests and spills life awash over everything it touches.

Such is what happens this night, the third week of Advent. Third purple candle ignites, the three together strong enough to cast a mixture of light and shadow on all the faces surrounding it. The darkness shies away, knowing what is coming...Who is coming.

Tonight marks the third week of advent. During Week One, we focused on Christ being “our Hope.” Last week, the focus is on Jesus being "the Way." And for this third week, we seek to remember that Christ is "our Joy."

The angel who hand delivered the very first Birth Announcements of our Savior's birth to the shepherds called this Word made flesh "good news of great joy which will be for all the people" (Lk. 2:10). Joy had come! They just had to seek and find it in the most unexpected places--a cattle trough.

During His ministry, Christ tried to teach His Disciples how to enter into His joy: "Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full" (Jn. 15:9-11). Full joy, abiding joy, abundant joy--it was only found through a love relationship with this Person of the trinity.

For the most part, though, the disciples just didn't get it, this joy found in the abiding. They thought it was something tangible to be touched, smelled, tasted, a joy found in Christ's literal kingdom coming to earth in a predictable political fashion.

And so when their Savior died, when the one in whom they placed the hope of all Israel was placed behind a wall of near-immovable rock, they scattered, were inconsolable, joyless.

Only after the Disciples saw the resurrected Christ did they finally understand Christ, Himself, was their joy...not because of what He did for them but because of who He was: "And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God" (Lk. 24:52-53).

To remember who Jesus truly is--our hope, the only way, our chief joy--is the only way to prepare our hearts for this Season of Joy. To experience that joy requires our worship--continual praising of God. Otherwise, our joy will be hollow, only an echo of the pure joy that's found in a Christmas celebrated without Christ.

When we are enduring the temporary trials of this earth and think we cannot enter into the joy of the season, we must worship Him anyway. We should not hide our disappointment from Him or drum up some 10 cent joy from within ourselves.

He knows already.

Instead, we must consciously choose to raise our voice in a song only to Him. Read His Word. Or just bow heads to whisper thanks for His Son before weeping before His throne.

His is the joy that no one can take away (Jn. 16:22).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Direction for the Hopelessly Lost

“Hopelessly lost” is a good adjective to describe me, not just in a spiritual sense but in a physical one as well.

When God was assembling my double helix, He left out the genetic code that would give me a sense of direction. North, south, east, west—don’t ask me. Instead, I attempt to drive by landmarks—the house with the “Quilts for Sale” sign out front, the farm where sheep used to graze twenty years ago, the intersection where golden squash and plump unshucked ears of corn were heaped overflowing in baskets one summer.

Even then, driving familiar roads is incredibly difficult, especially when a route I’ve driven dozens of time should be familiar but still isn’t. A few weeks back, I got lost driving to my friend’s house and had to call frantic for help.

As you can probably guess, I have a serious fear of being lost. Going prayer walking each week through the maze-like twists and turns of subdivisions has a couple times left me frantic, almost lost with thoughts of leaving breadcrumbs along my path to ensure I find my way back to the van.

Several years ago, my husband bought me a Garmin as a Valentines’ Day gift, but it died a well-mourned death last summer. Ever since, each time I get behind the wheel, I feel like a trapeze artist flying through the air with no net. If I let myself think about it, it’s terrifying.

All too many times, I don’t know the way when others find it childishly simple.

Tonight marks the second week of advent, two purple candles now flickering in the darkness. During Week One, we focused on Christ being “our Hope.” This week, the focus is on Jesus being “the Way.”

In the upper room when Jesus was preparing the disciples for what was to come, He said, "'In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.' Thomas said to Him, 'Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?' Jesus said to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (Jn. 14:2-6).

Jesus clearly tells us that He is The Way to everlasting life, to the place He is preparing for us. What’s more, He is the only way. But trusting in Christ alone for one’s salvation is a plan so simple that it’s easy to miss.

Even for the directionally challenged, it sometimes seems more logical, even easier to forge our own paths and trust in the good works of our hands, in what “feels” right in our gut versus trust in Him and what His many times head-scratching Word says about The Way He has laid out for us to follow.

But leaning on our own sense of direction will only result in us being hopelessly lost. Proverbs 3:5-6 speaks of Christ’s followers finding the Way by trusting in Him by faith: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.

Trust, faith in Christ is the only Way. Relying on a map made by human understanding will only take us down a different path than the one leading straight to salvation.

As difficult as Scripture is to understand at times, to know the Way is to know the Word. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).

In this Advent season, the Word is about to make His appearance in flesh. The Way is coming to make Himself known to a lost world.

While we may not know the exact paths, hills, and curves God wants us to take on our journey to Him, we do know He has given His Word as a roadmap to help guide us in the Way.

For one so confused by earthly directions, the idea that there is only one Way is actually quite comforting. If I keep my eyes firmly focused on Him, if I ask in faith for His guidance and keep my mind and heart rooted in studying and applying His word, I can’t get lost.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

One Flame of Hope

This evening marks the first Sunday of advent, the season when we Christians pause in concert to remember the sacrifice a King made when He chose to enshroud himself in the flesh of a newborn babe.

After sundown, Husband, the children, and I gathered still unsure stomachs around small cups of soup and cornbread to light the first of the long purple tapers.

As husband searched for the matches, I stepped to the living room and reached for the most well-worn Bible in the house, a New American Standard version that husband and I clung to through the worst season of our lives.

The faded cover has long since ceased to be attractive; its binding has been glued more than once; and some of its pages are stained from always being set down in the midst of life, itself. Its words, however, are still just as piercing and perfect as when the book was glossy and stiff bound with that audible crackle upon opening.

Little eyes watched as red-tipped match struck, sulfur sputtering, leaping to golden flame.

"This candle represents hope," I proclaimed.


Even though at times we may despair, feel there is no hope, none of us really knows what it is like to live in a world without hope.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of hope. In his letters to the exiled Israelites, to those people who felt as if their God had abandoned them to their this group, he spoke words of hope.

"'For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’" (Jer. 29:10-14).

Even in exile, in judgment, in slavery, in the midst of God's wrath--even then, there was hope for them.

A Savior was coming, one who would save them from their sin, who would reunite humanity with a holy Father.

The same holds true for us today. As Peter rejoiced, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade"(1 Peter 1:3-4).

Hope has come.

Hope is here.

Hope is coming.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Blessing of Thanks

In the midst of the turkey and cranberries, family stories and laughter, remember to raise your voice in thanks to the One who provides the very breath of life, itself.

Wherever God may have placed you for this Thanksgiving season, from our very frigid family to yours, I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving.

Photo: My three heat-loving Louisiana children sitting on Grandma's blazing hearth in Michigan.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why I Worship at Church

The sounds of my oldest son cradling the porcelain toilet in our hotel room woke me from a deep sleep. The clock read a few minutes past 2:00 am, and I sent upwards a prayer for this to be just a one-time incident, perhaps our late on-the-road supper just not quite agreeing with his always-tender stomach.

A quick, warm bath and no PJs, I sent Wyatt back to his makeshift bed and snuggled myself down beneath the plush duvet for some much needed rest after a long day's travel. Seconds later, I heard his feet padding back across the room, bathroom light blinding as it pierced the darkness. My next action was not very motherly--I sighed...loudly.

And so it went till morning when the grown ups sat around wondering what to do. Should the grandparents leave me and the children for my husband to pick up and continue their journey northward? Should we all just turn around and go home?

Stomach flu is as contagious as wildfire in my house, three preschoolers not yet wise enough to keep anything and everything out of their mouths. This was disaster waiting to strike.

I finally decided we would just continue north; I'd live in the hotel room with sick ones if it came to that. And I prayed. I called my husband and begged both him and my inlaws to drop and pray. But I just felt more was needed. So, I texted the one person in my church whose number I had in my phone; I begged her to tell everyone to pray.

My son who couldn't keep air down for over seven hours suddenly stopped gagging and started keeping down ice chips, then a biscuit.

Even before I received her reply, I knew what had happened. God's people had prayed. My church family had gathered together before worship this morning to include my child in their prayers...and God had heard and answered.

Having a church family to worship with? It's more important than most people think.

In the book of Hosea, one of God's primary charges against Israel is adultery, playing the harlot by worshiping other gods. In the midst of describing God's anger over the idolatry, the prophet offers this criticism: "They offer sacrifices on the tops of the mountains And burn incense on the hills, Under oak, poplar and terebinth, Because their shade is pleasant" (Hos. 4:13, my italics).

I was surprised by this critique--that the people of Israel chose to worship in places where worship was easy, was pleasant.

My first thought was that I like air conditioned buildings with plush seats that don't make my bottom fall asleep. I find that environment pleasant. So, did that mean my worship wasn't measuring up?

But no. To find the answer required going back in time toward the beginning of Israel's history after Solomon died.

When Solomon's son, Rehoboam, inherited Israel, he ruled the entire united kingdom, but that soon was pared down to just two of the twelve tribes. The remaining ten tribes revolted and crowned Jeroboam King of Israel because they weren't so happy with Solomon's heavy yoke or his son who planned to continue acting just like dad.

God promised Jeroboam rule of these ten tribes down through the generations if he would only obey Him. But Jeroboam was scared of losing it all "just" by trusting God's word and, instead, sought to make his own destiny.

As Scripture says, "Jeroboam said in his heart, 'Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah'" (1 Kin. 12:26-27).

Mainly, Jeroboam was fearful of God's requirements for worship, which included sacrifices only at the temple in Jerusalem. His fear was that when the people went up to worship several times a year for the required feasts, they would dethrone him and reunite with Rehoboam.

In his unbelief, he made it easy for the people by setting up two golden calves at two alternate places for sacrifice to God at Bethel and Dan.

Looking at the map, Jerusalem was quite a long distance to travel for those located in the northern tribes, especially in the days of dusty dirt roads, exhausting foot travel, and dangerous marauding thieves and wild animals lurking about.

Jeroboam even said as much: "and he said to them, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt'" (1 Kin. 12:28).

And that was the beginning of the end for Jeroboam and for his people who quickly realized those alternative sites for sacrifice were more "pleasant" than a hard journey to Jerusalem.

They turned worship into a man-centered event rather than a God-centered event, one where they were more concerned about themselves than about what God commanded.

Somehow, the Israelites failed to understand that the actual trip to Jerusalem was part of the worship. They failed to understand that worship wasn't about merely sacrificing an animal or two, but was about personal sacrifice.

I may not be able to sacrifice as much as that weary pilgrim did long ago, the woman who put one foot after another as she walked in obedience up to the God-ordained temple to offer her sacrifices. But worship still must be a sacrifice for me.

Yes, I can worship in my car, in my back yard, in front of a TV where I can watch and participate in a streaming worship service.

But there's no sacrifice in that, no personal cost to me.

Attending church each Sunday? Anyone who has tried to awaken early; dress herself and three children in frills, clip-on ties, and freshly shined shoes; and feed a household of malcontents who really need more sleep...anyone who has accomplished this and made it to worship service on time knows corporate worship is a sacrifice. I give up sleep, one of only two days a week I have with my husband, a day I could catch up on house and school work--all because this is part of my worship, the sacrifice of my time, my energies to God.

But what I gain from my sacrifice? It's so much more than I could ever imagine. I gain a family of believers who is there for me when I need prayer. I gain the blessings of corporate worship, when the family comes together as one to lift up voices in praise to our Maker and Lord.

This day. This Thanksgiving. I am thankful for that local body of believers whom I can call upon at any moment and know they will not just say they will but pray, but who will pray.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Thanksgiving Before Pilgrims & Indians

I've always heard that holidays are the hardest on those left behind, their loved ones' absence creating a conspicuous void at any festive gathering.

Although most of my loved ones are still on this side of the great divide, the miles between us will find my family scattered like bright points on a map for Thanksgiving Day. My parents will be out of state with my dad's family; my brother will be "on call" at his military post in D.C., and my in-laws will be away as well, serving at their church's week-long, three-services-a-day Camp Meeting.

By last Saturday, I was so overwhelmed with images of empty chairs around the table that I'd just about decided to skip the holiday altogether.

The children are young. They wouldn't remember whether or not we gorged ourselves on a pop-up-timer turkey, cholesterol-slathered dressing, pumpkin pie, and (my favorite) chilled cranberry sauce that makes a sucking sound as it wobbles Jell-o style from the can. Since every past event happens either "yesterday" or "forever" ago in their young minds, I could just tell them Thanksgiving had already past.

And so, with husband watching what he referred to as "the most or second most important football game of all time," I entertained excited children by letting them help box up the turkey, the swags of autumn leaves, and the cornucopia; wrap up the ceramic pilgrims and pumpkins; shove the plush Indians back into their dark closet hole...all before breaking out the ruby-colored poinsettias, evergreen garland, pink sparkly tree, and white twinkle lights.

Instead of being sad over what would not be, I decided to be thankful for what was to come, to move forward to December when my family would be back together again, if only for a few days.

Even in the midst of tinsel and holly, though, I've still been thinking on Thanksgiving, but not so much the first Thanksgiving in America. No, I've been thinking further back to a "Thanksgiving" of sorts that I only recently learned about--the first one celebrated by those Israelites who had been taken into captivity to live as exiles in Babylon for 70 years.

When the exiles finally returned to Israel, can you guess what was the first feast the people celebrated? No, not Thanksgiving, but something quite similar--the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles, a harvest celebration that occurs in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, Tishri, which corresponds to our September/October.

Ezra writes, "Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem...They celebrated the Feast of Booths, as it is written" (Ez. 3:1,4).

In Leviticus, the Lord spoke to Moses requirements for this feast: "‘On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD for seven days....Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the LORD....You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’" (Lev. 23:39-44).

A feast, a harvest celebration to occur after the people had gathered the crops from the land? A feast to remind them that God had freed them from "exile" in Egypt, had taken them to a promised land He had covenanted to give them?

Harvest. Religious Freedom. Sounds a lot like our Thanksgiving to me.

Years later after both the exiles had rebuilt the temple and Jerusalem's city wall, the prophet Nehemiah emphasizes the celebration of this feast again: "They found written in the law how the LORD had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month....The entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing" (Neh. 8:14,17).

Returning home after 70 years of captivity had to make that first Feast of Booths quite special. And then this second mention of the Feast after the city of Jerusalem's walls were restored is described as even more special--a nationwide celebration that hadn't been this "big" since the days of Joshua.

Just as in the days of Moses, God had once again brought the exiles home to the promised land, where they could worship their God in His holy temple, in the manner in which He had prescribed to be worshiped. And there was great rejoicing.

To me, Thanksgiving has always meant Pilgrims and Indians, Plymouth rock, and the Mayflower. But now? I'm looking back a bit further to the Jewish Feast of Booths, a harvest celebration to remind the people of just what God had set them free from, of a time when they lived in tents ("booths") and relied on Him for their literal daily bread.

Even in this season I wanted to skip, I'm finding myself being caught up in the atmosphere of gratitude, thankful for God freeing me from the chains of sin God, for the harvest He keeps sending each season, and for the daily manna He rains down on those of us on our own journey to the promised land.

Image: For parents of young children (intended for ages 7 and up), I recommend reading Barbara Cohen's Molly's Pilgrim, a precious, beautifully illustrated story of a Yiddish girl whose classmates tease her relentlessly and the Thanksgiving project to make a Pilgrim doll that teaches Molly (and your children) what it means to be a modern-day Pilgrim in a world still marked by religious persecution.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

God & My Bank Account

Moving from green beans to corn, from yams to Stove Top stuffing, I take a box and add it to my pie crust mix, my frozen turkey. Just a few extra items added to my regular grocery run. Not enough to change the world by myself. But enough to give one needy family a well-rounded Thanksgiving meal.

We have entered the season of helping others. And yet a recent survey states “of the nation's 400 largest charities, half of them projected a decline of at least 9 per cent.”

In past years, Americans have been used to giving from their excess. But now with the loss of jobs, salary cuts, and higher costs at the store, we have tightened our budgets. Now, we’ll feel the pinch if we give. And for many, that has meant choosing to give less or nothing at all to those not as fortunate.

I, like many of you, am not rich by the world’s standards. With three hungry little mouths at the table and the permanent loss of my husband’s career into one with more flux than stability, I know how to stretch a dollar. And I know about learning to do with less.

But I also know that no matter how stretched the dollar is around our house, God always has provided enough for us to give something when He places a need on our hearts.

I’m not talking about God blessing my family just enough to give our 10% tithe as commanded in Scripture. I’m talking about God enabling us so that we can give an offering above and beyond the requirements. I'm talking about giving extravagantly through God.

For we as Christians to be generous in our giving, though, our hearts first must be right with God so that we are willing to release the offering He has given us already. Secondly, we must understand that in the previousness of God, He has already provided us with offerings to give. Scripture gives several examples of these two concepts.

In the Old Testament when Hezekiah became king of Judah, he led the people to get their hearts right with God and then said, “Come and bring sacrifices and thank offerings,” and “all whose hearts were willing” brought more offerings than anyone could have imagined (2 Chron. 29:31). This wasn’t an ego-trip for the people, though. They “rejoiced at what God had brought about for his people” (v. 36, my italics). The people understood they were merely giving back what God had given them to offer in the first place.

King David understood this same concept when he asked Israel’s leaders to give an offering to help build the temple. They did—again, in great abundance as well as “freely and wholeheartedly to the LORD” (1 Chron. 29:9).

David’s prayer over this offering beautifully expressed his thankfulness to God for the ability to offer these gifts: "But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand….O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you” (v. 14, 16).

Oh how I love David’s prayer. But my favorite passage is found in Israel’s early history when Moses was building the tabernacle and asked “Everyone who is willing to bring to the LORD an offering” (Ex. 35:4). The people brought so much that Moses ordered everyone to STOP: “’No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.’ And so the people were restrained from bringing more” (Ex. 36:6). Can you imagine too much giving?

Paul perfectly sums our why Christians should give with a willing heart: “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God….Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else….Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corr. 9:11,13,15)

What if everyone who read this posting ate one less meal a week? Bought one less toy for our children this Christmas?

Small sacrifices to give out of the abundance God has given us.

I thank you for grace in my reposting this from a few years ago. It just seemed to speak my heart best as I look forward a few weeks on my calendar.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Seeking The Well-Paved Paths of Righteousness

Thanksgiving came and went before I got the news my teaching contract would not be renewed for the Spring semester. Two week's notice was like a death sentence in the education industry where teachers are mainly hired in August with the occasional January opening.

Yet, in what seemed to be a God-placed newspaper advertisement, a local community college had an opening for an English teacher like me. I applied, got an interview, and then a second interview. Only one other person and I were left standing.

A few days before Christmas, the department head finally called. I would ring in the new year among the ranks of the unemployed.

As days turned into weeks of applying for every advertised job (even the distasteful ones) and being rejected or just ignored, my relationship with my mother grew tense. She wanted me to return to college and get my teaching certificate so I could teach high school English, but I balked. Even as a senior in high school, I had felt God's strong calling for me to teach English in college. I had followed that calling with almost tunnel vision, everything including extracurricular activities selected with care to lead me to that goal.

But here I was--23 years old, living with my parents, no income, and no job prospects. Even Wal-mart turned me down. Had I heard God wrong?

Many Christians have this concept that if we are in the center of God's will, if we are fulfilling a task, mission God has set before us, we will not encounter difficulty, that God will make our path smooth . We may not verbalize this philosophy, but we live it.

Scripture, on the other hand, shows all too many examples of men and women who prove life in Christ is quite the opposite.

Consider the prophet Nehemiah, a man who felt God's calling to return and rebuild Jerusalem's walls. God set forth the path, setting it in the king's heart to grant Nehemiah's request, send letters for the "governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah," provide free timber to rebuild the city gates, as well as lend "officers of the army and horsemen" for the journey (Neh. 2:7-9).

Smooth sailing.

Yet in the very next verse, Nehemiah recounts, "When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel" (2:10).

These three enemies rose up to stop the project that was God-ordained. First, they "mocked us and despised" the builders, disparaging their building efforts saying, "Even when they are building--if a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!"(2:19, 4:3). No sticks and stones, but harmful words that "demoralized the builders" (4:5).

Then, when words didn't stop the building project, "All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it" (4:8). Two verses later, though, the enemies' plan escalated from causing a disturbance to murder: "They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work" (4:11).

So much for smooth sailing.

Until the wall was completed, Nehemiah and his workers "set up a guard against them day and night...From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates...Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon" (4:9, 16-17).

The atmosphere was one of constant danger, one of fear. By Chapter 6, the enemy changed tactics, this time seeking to destroy Nehemiah, himself, even going so far as to threaten to tell Babylon he was planning a rebellion.

In the end? Nehemiah and God's people were triumphant: "So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of the month Elul, in fifty-two days" (6:15).

Such an awesome task completed in that short a time span? Even the opposition recognized this was not something man could have done alone: "When all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations surrounding us saw it, they lost their confidence; for they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God" (6:16).

God had set in Nehemiah's heart a plan to rebuild the city of Jerusalem's walls, to remove this shame from God's holy city. God had opened the door of the king's heart for Nehemiah to be able to walk this path. But it was still not a path of ease and pleasure. It was a hard fifty-two day path filled with back-breaking labor as well as both daily and nightly peril because of real in-the-flesh enemies literally lurking in the shadows.

It was a path that required faith and constant reliance upon God. It was a path that gave God all the glory.

These wouldn't likely be three outcomes of the journey if He lay an endless winding ribbon of smooth asphalt before us.

Image: Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Blessing of Guilt

I tend to think of guilt as a bad thing. And sometimes, it is.

But guilt is also a blessing. You heard me right--guilt can be a blessing.

In the Old Testament, the concept of guilt is tied inextricably tied to the word sin. For instance, when God judges Cain for killing his brother, Cain says, "Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear!" (Gen. 4:13). Here, the word "punishment" means "depravity, iniquity, guilt or punishment of iniquity"* Based on this definition, Cain's sin (iniquity), his guilt from that sin, and the punishment from that sin are all tied together.

That sin against a holy God leads to punishment is a logical connection for those of us who are believers. But what is the role of guilt and why is it a blessing?

For the non-Christian and Christian alike, guilt is our God-given conscience's way of leading a person to repent and turn from sin.

In conjunction with the Law of the Old Testament, guilt is the Holy Spirit working in the soul, showing a person his inability to meet God's holy standard of perfection and his guilt/punishment because of that sin. James tells us, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all" (Jas. 2:10).

Without the blessing of the Law, without the blessing of guilt, a person would not understand the need for repentance and salvation, the need for a Savior.

The problem comes when God blesses a person with guilt, yet that person ignores it and doesn't turn from sin.

In Ezra, he says of Israel, "our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers to this day, we have been in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we, our kings and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity and to plunder and to open shame...we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this" (Ez. 9:6-7, 15).

Ezra understood that the children of Israel had long stood guilty before God. He understood that they had hardened their hearts to their guilty conscience, that they had failed to bend the knee in repentance, and that this was why God had punished them by sending them into captivity.

This time when Ezra warns the people they have been "adding to the guilt of Israel," the people listened to the Law, to their souls' guilt, and they repented: "and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their offense" (Ez. 10:10, 19).

This guilt--it was a blessing, leading them to repentance.

But what then? With the sin forgiven, does the guilt still remain? Perhaps in the flesh, we still cannot let go of the guilt, the shame for our sin, but for those who have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, in God's eyes, the guilt is no more.

David writes, "I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; And You forgave the guilt of my sin" (Ps. 32:5).

The blood of Christ cleanses our guilty conscience....cleanses our guilty soul.

The author of Hebrews writes of Christ: "For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying, 'THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THEM AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS UPON THEIR HEART, AND ON THEIR MIND I WILL WRITE THEM,' He then says, 'AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS I WILL REMEMBER NO MORE'" (Heb. 10:14-18).

In Christ, we have "hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb. 10:22).

If we have truly repented of and turned from our sin, we do not need to feel guilt. Christ has wiped it all away--the guilt, the sin, the punishment.

God has blessed even non-Christian societies with pre-programmed souls to feel the need for a moral code of right and wrong, to feel the pangs of guilt over wrongs. Yet, we must ever guard our hearts against hardening.

A guilty heart over sin should always lead to brokenness, confession, repentance, and a heart that thanks God for creating us with souls able to feel our guilt.


Image: from Bubbly Emotions

Monday, October 17, 2011

Worshipping with a Different Tribe

“How do they dress?” I had asked my sister in law. Even though we coming to her and my brother’s home for vacation, a weekend stay-over meant we would be worshipping with them at their church. My concern wasn’t making three toddlers be quiet in church service; it was not sticking out like a roadside daisy in a well-manicured bed of hybrid tea roses.

I needn’t have worried.

Two pews in front of us sat a man with stiffly gelled hair slicked to one side, a few days’ stubble on his face. He was dressed in a faded red polo that stretched taught around his ample belly and well-worn khakis, the creases and seams fuzzy with frayed threads. By him sat an African American man dressed much the same, both of them obviously together, obviously not financially well off.

Several rows up sat a woman in red and black wool hat, another in designer leopard print heels. Intermixed throughout the congregation were splashes of color, people of Asian and Indian heritage. Behind us sat a woman who whipped out her cell phone to proudly show a picture of her newly adopted son from Korea.

This was a coming together of people from different walks of life, different backgrounds, yet all raising their voice in song to Christ who bound them together. I didn’t feel out of place. Instead, I felt like I was just one of God’s children assembled together as one to worship Him.

Although there are exceptions, in a Southern culture where most churches are divided mostly along racial lines, I sometimes feel I get such an inaccurate picture of what worship was intended to be…what worship one day will be.

I can’t help wondering about that first worship experience when the first group of exiles returned from captivity in Babylon.

The very first thing they did upon arrival was worship: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem…[and] buil[t] the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it" (Ezra 3:1-2).

Seventy years had passed. Many of those returning were born in captivity, had never worshipped in God’s holy city as one assembly with all God’s chosen people. Likely, they had never worshipped together as a group, period.

Many were surely quite poor; yet, we know some were wealthy since Ezra speaks of their building houses with panels of cedar like King Solomon did. So, at a minimum, the congregation of worshippers included those of disparate social classes.

Yet, were the worshippers even more varied? Perhaps word of Cyrus’ decree that the Jews could return home had spread rapidly to the surrounding countries, to Egypt, where many of the Israelites fled once conquered. Had these exiles also returned along with the ones from Babylon to help rebuild the temple foundation? Were they part of “the people” who assembled to worship?

And the ones who had been left behind, those considered so poor, so worthless that they were no threat to an enemy king—did they, too, join as one in worship with their returned brothers and sisters? Or had they all intermarried with foreigners, been drawn away by false gods at this point so that their worship was an abomination to God?

There’s a lot I don’t know about who joined together to worship Jehovah once this first wave of exiles returned home. It’s all conjecture.

But Revelation tells how it will be one day. John says, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’”(Rev. 7:9-10).

Rich, poor; healthy, sick; black, white, red, and all in between—we who serve Him will all gather together in true unity to worship Christ, our Redeemer and Lord.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

When Popcorn Prayers are All You Can Manage

In life before children, I would get up each day and dress for work, eat my breakfast bar, choke down my 8 oz. of OJ, and kneel at the kitchen table with my prayer journal before me. In the evening, I would sit in bed with my Bible study open on my lap and pray with the rhythmic sounds of husband's breathing or cats' purring.

Since becoming a mother of twins, however, one of the biggest struggles I've faced is finding the quiet time for my quiet time. The funny thing is, I literally have a closet designated solely for prayer, but I don't yet have children who will leave me alone long enough to say too much to the Father before I have to go kiss a boo boo, stop a squabble, or just be visibly present.

I've read with admiration the story of Susannah Wesley who would flip her apron up over her head and pray wherever she was. Her children knew not to interrupt. Mine would be standing with their face inches from the cloth or peeking beneath its hem to see if my eyes were closed. Preschoolers don't understand personal space.

Most authors I've read suggest getting up earlier than your children, but since I go to work when my brood goes down for the night, that hasn't worked for an already sleep-deprived me. (Yes, you can fall asleep while on your knees.)

After three years, though, I've adjusted and have learned to pray more frequent yet shorter prayers throughout the day, most of the time out loud so my children can hear me--when I'm folding laundry, fixing a meal, or pulling weeds from the flowerbeds; when I feel overwhelmed with parenting, when I am thankful for a breeze or cloud to cover the sun, when I am burdened for someone.

Still, each time my pastor asks, "How much time have you spent in prayer this week?" I feel guilty. I have an attitude of prayer throughout most days where I dialogue out loud with God as the thought comes to my mind to pray for this, give thanks for that. But, until nightfall, prayer time is not something I can use a timer to measure.

And so, I feel like my prayer life is insufficient, that I am failing in my relationship with God just because my time in prayer with the Father doesn't look like what one typically imagines.

The book of Nehemiah, though, has encouraged me over the past few weeks, showing Biblical prayer in a new light.

In the first chapter, Nehemiah's prayer is just what one would expect from an Old Testament prophet. He weeps, fasts, and mourns "for days" before praying heaven down in a long, flowing, beautiful prayer of confession, repentance, and intercession for his people, all while reminding God of who He is and of His promises before asking for help.

He prayed. He sought God's will. But after this first textbook prayer, Nehemiah's prayer life shifts, at least on paper, as he moves into circumstances that take his undivided attention.

One chapter later after the king has finally asked what Nehemiah wants to do about the city of Jerusalem lying in ruins, Scripture recounts, "So I [Nehemiah] prayed to the God of heaven. I said to the king..."(Neh. 2:4). In one sentence, the text says he prayed, and in the next, it says he's speaking aloud to the king. Why? The circumstance he was in.

In this instance, Nehemiah didn't have time to pause for a long prayer. He was in the midst of the situation and likely had time to only speak God's name in his heart before responding to the king's question.

A few chapters later after Nehemiah returned Jerusalem and was facing opposition from enemies who did not want the city's wall restored, he suddenly stopped his historical recounting of the situation to pray for God's help: "Hear, O God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders" (Neh. 4:4-5).

Again, he simply interrupts the narrative for a two sentence prayer before moving forward with the labor that requires his full attention, only to pause from his wall--building a few verses later to say "But we prayed to our God" (4:9).

Prayer is not absent from Nehemiah's heart and lips. But, in this circumstance where the builders and the wall must be guarded both day and night to protect the people from their enemies, Nehemiah likely did not have time to sit down for a two day fast and prayer, maybe not even for an hour of prayer at one time.

In the next chapter, Nehemiah describes confronting the people over their sin, then again abruptly interrupts the narrative to say, "Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" (5:19).

And again, in the next chapter when he is frightened by his enemies, he interrupts to say, "But now, O God, strengthen my hands" before describing how he refused to cower or hide from his enemies(6:9). When the enemies continue to attack, he prays again, saying, "Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these works of theirs, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the rest of the prophets who were trying to frighten me" (6:14).

Later, after confronting Israel for their sin once again, Nehemiah prays, "Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services...For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness" (13:14,22).

His last recorded prayer is, as the others, abrupt: "Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites" (13:29).

Except for the first prayer where Nehemiah fasted, wept, and spent days in prayer seeking God's will, every other instance shows him interrupting the narrative for a one to two sentence prayer. It's like watching an older movie where the narrator interrupts every now and then to give the main character's inner thoughts. The prayers do show some commonalities:
  • Each of these prayers could be wiped from the narrative without the reader noticing, indicating how truly extemporaneous they were.
  • Most are asking God to "remember"--either in the sense of judging the unrighteous or in blessing / protecting him who was serving God.
  • And all were prayed in the midst of difficult circumstances of service to God.
Praying for God's will as Nehemiah does initially in the first chapter does seem to require much fasting and praying, a concentrated time in communion with the Lord. Yet, once one knows the will of the Lord and is in the thick of that ministry or battle, I'm not saying to stop the concentrated prayer times, but know that popcorn prayers throughout each day, each hour, are Scriptural.

No, your attention, my attention is not consumed with rebuilding a city wall without getting ourselves or our countrymen killed by enemies both without and within. But, you may be in a particular chapter of your life where your God-given ministry requires so much attention that long periods of prayer are less frequent than you would like, than you need. Perhaps that ministry is raising young children in the Lord or being the primary caregiver to a sick family member or to an aging parent.

A concentrated quiet time of prayer is important. Yet, in the midst of the trial, the God-appointed ministry, the battle, when there seems to be no time to sleep, much less pray, prayer is still necessary. It may take a different form, showing itself in those daily, hourly sentence prayers lifted to heaven, but be encouraged.

You might be surprised at how popcorn prayers spoken instantly throughout each hour at every thought of need, fear, or concern for another will strengthen your relationship with the Lord and make you more attuned to His Spirit living within.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Until the Whole World Hears

A people group is defined by its shared language, customs, practices, rules, heritage, etc.* According to one study, there are 11,627 people groups worldwide, or approximately 6.8 billion people.

Of these people groups, 58% (or 6,750) are labelled unreached, meaning less than 2% of the group's population are professing evangelical Christians. Another 32% of these people groups (or 3,684) are considered unengaged, meaning there is no active strategy for evangelism and church planting among the group.

For Christians, these numbers should be convicting. Knowing how few people have access to the gospel, knowing that 1.8 people die every second, well, you do the math.

In contrast to these vast numbers of people with no access to Jesus, the past decade in America has seen a literal explosion in available Christian-education material, with Bible studies, conferences, podcasts, and online commentaries devoted to helping Christians learn about this God they serve.

It's no longer just you, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit helping you plow through the thee's and thou's of the King James version. Instead, there are dozens of authors, speakers, bloggers just waiting to help Christians learn more about God, experience God, commune with God.

Making disciples by teaching ourselves about the Bible, about God, about our relation to Him and His kingdom plan for our universe--it's important. Yet, the number of unsaved dying each day begs the question, "Is taking the time to study Scripture really important when millions are dying without Christ while we sit hunched over our Bibles, trying to discern its truths? "

Should we stop learning and start just doing?

Consider what author David Platt says in Radical: "How do we make God’s glory known in all nations? If God has given us his grace so that we might take his gospel to the ends of the earth, then how do we do that? Do we walk out into the streets and just start proclaiming the glory of God somehow? Should we all go to other nations? If we go, what do we do when we get there? What does all this look like in our day-to-day lives?...If we were left to ourselves with the task of taking the gospel to the world, we would immediately begin planning innovative strategies and plotting elaborate schemes....But Jesus is so different from us.....All he wanted was a few men who would think as he did, love as he did, see as he did, teach as he did, and serve as he did. All he needed was to revolutionize the hearts of a few, and they would impact the world" (87-88).**

In Platt's view, evangelism is important, but it first involves revolutionizing the heart.

The New Testament says that Christians are made, in Christ, "be a kingdom and priests to our God" (Rev. 5:10). Paul said of all Christians, even those grafted-in Gentiles, "you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).

If we Christians are to be priests with hearts revolutionized for evangelism, for sharing Christ, then what does that priest look like?

While Christ, our High Priest, is always the foremost model of what a priest should be, Scripture provides us with another example as well.

In the second wave of exiles returning from captivity in Babylon was, Ezra, the prophet, who models a three-pronged approach of what a priest, a Christian, should be. Scripture says, "For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel" (Ez. 7:10).

1. TO STUDY--Four times in chapter seven, Ezra is described as "skilled in the law of Moses" (6), "learned in the words of the commandments of the LORD and His statutes to Israel" (11), and "the scribe of the law of the God of heaven" (12 & 23). This man studied the Word so much that others knew it, even a pagan king.

2. TO PRACTICE--Ezra practiced what he studied in Scripture. He led those traveling with him so that they "fasted and sought our God" (8:23). He demonstrated in action His faith in God's ability to protect him from harm: "I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, 'The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all who seek Him'" (8:22).

What's more,
Ezra mourned openly over Israel's sin, interceded on Israel's behalf, and called for the people's repentance even when taking action would have far-reaching implications among God's people; he "pray[ed] and ma[de] confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God" (10:1).

--Even the pagan King Artaxerxes understood the importance of Ezra teaching God's chosen people the holy Scriptures: "You, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand...teach anyone who is ignorant of them [laws]" (7:25).

Ezra apparently did just that because two short chapters later, the people of Israel approached him, explaining that that they had sinned against God by intermarrying with pagan foreigners and saying, "So now let us make a covenant with our God...according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law" (10:3).

Ezra studied. He practiced what he studied. And he taught what he studied. I think the order of these steps presented in Ezra 7:10 is highly important--Ezra could not practice before he studied. He could not effectively teach before he had practiced, nor could he effectively teach before he had studied.

The same is true of us as Christians today. If we are to be priests in Christ's kingdom, if we are to have revolutionized hearts that love like Christ so that we can reach the millions who are, as of yet, unreached by the gospel, we must not think ourselves better than Ezra. We must not be arrogant enough to believe we can go and do without first establishing a firm foundation in Jesus.

Sharing about God cannot be separated from learning about God, cannot be separated from living for God.

Take out any part of the equation and you have an evangelism that is powerless, you have a gospel full of holes, and you have a life ripe for a falling away from Christ.

*Global Research IMB. "What is a People Group."

**Platt, David. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Is Goodness Contagious?

Husband's hands look relatively good, small red blisters beneath tough outer callouses revealing the struggle within between virus and body. His feet? Much worse, too disgusting to look at, much less photograph.

The fever of hand, foot, and mouth disease now past, he hobbles around like an arthritic old man in obvious pain, all ten toes coated on top, between, and on the pads below with dozens of raised, white blisters, each more than half inch in diameter and all filled to the bursting point just waiting to spread the contagion.

With husband's case being so bad, we've read up on the disease, traced his infection back to our children who were all sick until this past Monday with inexplicable high fever and mouths so sore they wouldn't eat for days. They caught the same illness at a birthday party, a friend's children several days mended but the dad not knowing until 24 hours later that he was also infected, virus incubating in silence while we all ate chocolate cake and laughed loudly at kids running an obstacle course.

The timeline fits. Same symptoms. Same incubation period. Same fever & pain, albeit much worse in the two adult men than in the children.

Viruses are contagious. Modern society recognizes this and most people try to quarantine illnesses as best they can once symptoms are obvious. But what about sin? Is it equally contagious?

The answer is yes, maybe even more so.

After the children of Israel had returned from seventy years of captivity in Babylon, you would think the people would be done with sin, would seek with all their heart to be holy and blameless before their God, knowing how wrathful He could be in judgment. Yet, that wasn't entirely the case.

Not too many years after they arrived back home, the Israelites began facing much opposition to rebuilding the temple. After becoming discouraged, they simply stopped building, with the wealthy focused on self versus on God, creating their own luxurious "paneled houses" that were comparable to Solomon's richly adorned palace with its cedar-overlaid walls and ceilings (Hag. 1:4; 1 Kin. 7:37).

Because of Israel's disobedience in not relying on God to empower them to rebuild His house, God ignored their prayers, their sacrifices, their requests for blessings and, instead, intentionally thwarted their labors, causing the land to produce less and less as they toiled more and more.

When the people just didn't get it, God then did what He had done with their forefathers--sent a prophet. Haggai appeared on the scene to explain how individual sin was affecting the entire body: "Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'Ask now the priests for a ruling: If a man carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and touches bread with this fold, or cooked food, wine, oil, or any other food, will it become holy?' And the priests answered, 'No.' Then Haggai said, 'If one who is unclean from a corpse touches any of these, will the latter become unclean?' And the priests answered, 'It will become unclean'" (Hag. 2:11-13).

The question was clear--can holiness be transferred from one object to another? The answer was equally clear--no. But what about uncleanness? Can it be transferred from one person to another? Here, the answer is yes.

After Israel responded to these hypothetical questions, "Then Haggai said, 'So is this people. And so is this nation before Me,' declares the LORD, 'and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean'" (Hag. 2:14).

In other words, a person's sin in one aspect of his life affects all of his life, makes his entire body unclean before the Lord, makes all his offerings and acts of service unclean before the Lord. The same seems true of the nation of Israel--as a corporate body, her sin made all of her unclean before the Lord.

The reason behind this is because sin left unchecked contaminates others, causes others to sin. Sin is contagious. For instance, before captivity, one man, King Manasseh, sinned, causing all of Israel to sin: "Thus Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the sons of Israel" (2 Chron. 33:9).

Consider these concepts in relation to Christians today. Sin in one aspect of a Christian's life affects the Christian's entire walk with the Lord. Additionally, sin is still quite contagious, and in the body of Christ if not dealt with properly, can infect the whole body. This is why Paul was so adamant that a brother in Christ should be openly confronted in love about his sin and not allowed to remain part of the fellowship as long as he continued living in sin.

Paul writes, "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Cor. 5:6-8).

Sin is contagious. Righteousness is not.

This isn't what the world teaches. It teaches a "Pass it On" mentality, that righteousness can be transferred from one person to another through random (or intentional) acts of kindness. Yet, while good deeds and a spirit of kindness, compassion, and generosity driven by one's conscience can be transferred, righteousness and holiness in one's soul cannot be transferred.

Holiness, righteousness are not viruses one can "catch" by simply hanging around holy people or doing holy things.

No. Holiness and righteousness are a state of the soul imparted to the individual by Christ through His sacrifice as the Passover lamb.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

When You Are Discouraged

It is this evening when my mind thinks on the apostle John when he was exiled on the Isle of Patmos. On this Sabbath, my heart has not resembled his, in the spirit, to receive such a marvelous revelation from God of Christ's kingdom. How long had he been in exile, alone among thieves and murderers? How often had he been hungry? Sick? And yet, he was in the spirit.

I sit ashamed, after not even a whole calendar week, six days, my soul having already sunk to a state so opposite his heaven-bent one.

Since Tuesday, all three of my children have been sick, a 24 hour lag time between the start of each child's fever. By Thursday night, my oldest was back bouncing and consuming his weight in food, what looked to be a simple 48 hour virus. Even with my youngest son, it appeared the illness was following the same pattern.

On Friday, in the midst of this trial, I was still ok, still thanking God for fevers dropping, for only one child needing a lap at one time. Our family missed Wednesday night corporate worship, Thursday morning prayer walking. It was disappointment, but my soul was still focused upward instead of inward.

Then, I allowed myself to hope we would make it to Sunday worship today, something I realized last night wasn't going to happen. My daughter just wasn't able to shake her fever and youngest son continued to complain of his throat hurting.

That's when it happened, when I failed to take my thoughts captive and give thanks for His higher plans overriding my plans. In that instance when disappointment overwhelmed, discouragement crept beneath my door, curled at my feet, and struck my heart, rendering this ungrateful one powerless, useless.

It's easy to grow discouraged...especially when an overwhelming circumstance writes CANCELLED in bold atop an entire week's schedule. But whether that discouragement comes in the form of an illness, the weather, a bad economy, or another person, we Christians must know we are not alone in facing opposition.

We must remember that "Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). We must recall that this same Satan strolls up to the Father's throne, asking "to sift you as wheat" (Lk. 22:31).

We must know that others before us have felt discouragement as well. Like us, they had to be reminded where their focus should be.

In the prophet Ezra's time, in excess of 42,000 Israelites returned from captivity in Babylon to their beloved Jerusalem. Their first big order of business? Rebuilding the temple: "In the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem in the second month," they began to rebuild the temple. (Ez. 3:8). After finishing the foundation, though, the opposition started.

Ezra writes, "Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building and hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia" (Ez. 4:4-5).

The King James version translates the word "discouraged" as "weakened": "Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah" (Ez. 4:4).

Fear. Bad counsel. Local Samaritans wanting to help build and then likely acting out in anger when rejected. And eventually tattletale counselors who lied to King Artaxerxes so that the king ordered their work to stop....something history doesn't show the Israelites contesting in the slightest.

The discouragement, the weakening worked: "Then the work on the house of God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ez. 4:24).

Subtract the dates, and that's fourteen, maybe fifteen, years of looking at a foundation each time they passed the site where the temple should be. Fourteen years of letting discouragement reign their lives versus trusting in God to see His plans fulfilled!

Only when God sent two prophets--Haggai and Zechariah--to start "supporting" the people did they come out of their shell of fear and discouragement, this time choosing to look up and trust in God even when the discouraging, tattletale counselors started trying to thwart the building project again (Ez. 5:2).

The prophets didn't do or say anything magical, mysterious. No fire coming down from heaven and consuming an altar. No manna left on the morning doorstep. Instead, they simply reminded the people of who God is:

"Then Haggai, the LORD’s messenger, gave this message of the LORD to the people: 'I am with you,” declares the LORD'" (Hag. 1:13).

"' Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty" (Hag. 2:4).

I. AM.

These once discouraged people simply had to remember The I Am was watching over them.

Fourteen years earlier, Ezra had called these I AM-strengthened people , "discouraged " (Ez. 4:4). The King James version called them "weakened."

The word raphah translated as "weakened" or "discouraged" here in Ezra is the same Hebrew word translated in the Psalms as "still" in the infamous verse, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10).

Consider the verse's application when inserting Ezra's other two translations of raphah:

Be discouraged and know that I am God.
Be weakened and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am God.

When I am disheartened with the world, when I sink down to my knees and recognize how feeble, how weak I truly am--it is then that I have two choices. I can focus on me and roll around like a pig in my disappointments. Or I can be still, let that moment, those feelings of insufficiency, point me to the power and person of I Am.

Resource: Blue Letter Bible.