Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Complete Spring Cleaning

When trying to stop smoking, some people throw out all their smoking paraphernalia...except for those few "just in case" cigarettes or a favorite lighter hidden in the back of a drawer.

After successfully losing weight and buying a wardrobe of smaller-sized clothes, others keep around those larger clothes, pushing them to the back of the closet "just in case" the pounds return.

However, without a complete severing, the fine, wispy strands connecting these individuals to their past can slowly grow into strong cords, once again entangling.

To say these people expect to fail isn't exactly correct. Instead, they think it can't hurt to have those remnants tucked away in the back of a drawer or closet.

In Old Testament Israel, the same ideology seems to apply to many of their so-called "good" kings.

The Kings and Chronicles follows a pretty predictable historical pattern: Israel will suffer from one or more evil kings who lead the land in idol worship. Then, a "good" king will come to the throne and restore the land and its people to worshiping the one true God, Yahweh.

The problem is that from the time of King David's son Solomon until the very end of Judah's history as a nation, not one of these kings ever completely cleaned "spiritual house" in the land. Each always left some vestige of idolatry behind, leaving the door wide open for the next evil king to welcome idolatry back into the favor.

Even when just skimming through the Kings and Chronicles, looking for passages that summarize whenever a king comes to the throne or dies, it's easy to see the king's goodness is repeatedly followed by the word "but" or "however."

For instance, Scripture says, "So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel. However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit—the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan" (2 Kin. 10:28-29, my italics). In other words--Godly guy, but still allowed idolatry to continue.

The same goes for king Joash: "Joash did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all the years Jehoiada the priest instructed him. The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there" (2 Kin. 12:2-3, my italics). Again--Godly king, but one who didn't completely force God's people to worship and sacrifice only at the temple as God intended.

The same "good...but" mentality continues down the line of kings, and the list after the "but" seems to get bigger. One of the last kings was "evil...but" king Manasseh. His divinely-inspired change of heart saw him, too, getting rid of idolatry, but only in the city of Jerusalem: "He also removed the foreign gods and the idol from the house of the LORD, as well as all the altars which he had built on the mountain of the house of the LORD and in Jerusalem, and he threw them outside the city" (2 Chron. 33:15).

In my mind, I see him throwing the idols outside the city during the daylight and smiling that he'd done a great thing; yet, once darkness falls, other shadows sneak outside the walls and carry those carved images right back inside to hide in backs of closets.

But then came King Josiah, a man who cleaned house like it had never been cleaned before.

He not only "tore down the altars of the Baals" and "broke into pieces" the other carved idols. He also "ground [them] to powder" or burned them, then desecrated and defiled the places of idol worship with those ashes so that no one could worship false gods there again (2 Chron .34:4, 2 Kin. 23:4,10).

Unlike Manasseh, Josiah didn't just conduct this house cleaning within the city of Jerusalem (2 Chron. 34:4). Instead, he "beat the Asherim and the carved images into powder, and chopped down all the incense altars throughout the land of Israel" (2 Chron. 34:7, my italics).

The scary thing about all the Godly kings who had gone before him is they had left so much behind!

For instance, Josiah "demolished" and "ground them to dust" those places of idol worship that dated back to King Jeroboam of the two golden calves (2 Kin. 23:15). And even worse, Josiah destroyed high places "which Solomon the king of Israel had built" for several of the false gods his foreign wives worshiped (2 Kin. 23:13; see 1 Kin. 11:7-8).

Such a thorough cleaning of all of Israel, dust hundreds' of years in the making--it wasn't an overnight job. Chronicles records that Josiah began to "purge" Judah of idolatry in the twelfth year of his reign and he didn't finish the purge until the eighteenth year of his reign--that's six years of smashing idols to powder (2 Chron. 34:3,8).

Consider the implications to our own lives. When a person gives her life to Christ, God starts cleaning and rebuilding that house to be a holy temple for His Spirit to reside in. Just like with Josiah, though, grinding a person's idols to powder is not an overnight process. It takes time and a lifetime of constant self-examination.

We must continuously ask ourselves if there is anything in any portion of our lives that we are holding onto, that we have made an idol of--perhaps because our fathers or even our father's father's father did it that way, even if it's not God's way.

Maybe it's an activity, a habit, an object. And no, it may not draw you, personally, back into sin.

But if there's anything we can learn from Israel's godly kings with a poor cleaning policy, it's that ridding our lives of all idol remnants is not always about ensnaring ourselves in sin--it's also about leading others to sin.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Uncreating Creation--Six, Five, Four...

The creation story fascinates me--the concept that God spoke and there was from the wasn't.

When visualizing the power of God's spoken Word, my mind connects to the Disney movie where Aladdin speaks the words of his wish and poof, the Genie magically makes those words become reality on the technicolor screen. It's a real, divine power that I can only seemingly understand through the lens of fantasy.

Since July of last year, though, I have been intrigued not by the concept of creation, but by the thought of God un-creating. Last year, I spent a week in Psalm 46, dwelling on the verse that says, "he lifts his voice, the earth melts" (v. 6). One commentary explained it as "the creation itself may seem to be uncreated."* In short, God speaks and creation is no more.

Speaking of Christ as part of the triune Godhead, Paul says, "For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Col. 1:16-17).

At the time, my state was seeing its landscape, its plants and wildlife being literally uncreated from the oil spill in the Gulf. It seemed things were not holding together well in Christ. I could imagine God enthroned, suddenly stop speaking the name of a particular plant or a specific bird--and that creation would be no more.

This past week, I once again returned to this notion of uncreation concerning God's judgment of Judah's sin as well as God's final judgment of the entire earth:

"'I will completely remove all things
From the face of the earth,' declares the LORD.
I will remove man and beast;
I will remove the birds of the sky
And the fish of the sea...
" (Zeph. 1:2-3).

In this passage, the prophet says God will uncreate the world; in essence, He will "reverse" creation.

Genesis has God creating man last on Day 6, right after creating land animals. Ironically, in God's plan, the last created is the first to be uncreated. Then, God continues to reverse His creation, next uncreating what He made on Day 5--those creatures who dwelt in the waters and the birds of the air.

Later in the same chapter, God shows how this judgment of the earth begins with His own household, Judah. Interestingly, the sins for which Judah would be punished seem to be quite similar to the sins of our nation, our world, implying the earth will be uncreated for many of the same sins Judah was destroyed or "uncreated" for.

For instance, after blasting Judah over its idolatry and worship of the heavens through astrology, God gives a couple other sins that may not make our radar but that definitely make His: "So I will stretch out My hand against Judah...And those who have turned back from following the LORD, And those who have not sought the LORD or inquired of Him" (Zeph. 1:4a, 6).

With God, "Well, I used to..." won't fly. With God, "I didn't know because I chose to not read the Bible" is no excuse.

God continues, "And I will punish the men Who are stagnant in spirit, Who say in their hearts, 'The LORD will not do good or evil!'" (Zeph. 1:12).

This third group of "stagnant in spirit" apparently saw evil going unpunished in the world around them (sound familiar?) and thus believed God to be morally ambivalent instead of the patient, merciful, unwilling-for-any-to-perish God that He was.

The term "stagnant" also refers to Judah's consuming spiritually stagnant cistern water versus the living water God offered through His promise of Messiah, something the prophet Jeremiah also criticized the people of Israel for.

And to those of us living in modern times, this term also brings to mind the message to the church of Laodicea: "'I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth'" (Rev. 3:15-16).

The uncreation of creation--once before by flood, the next time by fire. It's as real as the Words God spoke to create our existence in the first place.

There are so many who are relying on intentional ignorance, a past-tense religion, or a lukewarm faith to see them securely to the other side of eternity.

Yet, complete submission to the Lord with all one's heart, soul, and mind is the only way.

* Baker and Carpenter. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. p. 579.

Photo Credit: "M16: Pillars of Creation." J. Hester, P. Scowen (ASU), HST, NASA

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Unintentional Seduction

Mention the word "seduction," and tawdry images from the Victoria's Secret window at the mall or television shows like Desperate Housewives might come to your mind. However, despite how the term is normally used, seduction need not be sexual.

A person can be seduced into doing any number of actions--theft, gossip, idolatry, murder. They could be seduced by someone's fraudulent scheme or even seduced to participate in a particular lifestyle.

While we may consider ourselves too savvy to be duped by most who would try to seduce us into wrong actions, we rarely think that we could be the seducer.

Lately, I've been stuck in the annals of the kings, studying the last few men God allowed upon the throne before sending Babylon to take Judah into exile. One of the last kings was actually the worst of the worst.

Before God took him to the woodshed of captivity, King Manasseh did everything and anything he could to go against God. In Jerusalem's holy temple, he erected altars to false gods and placed their carved images within its walls. He "made his sons pass through the fire...practiced witchcraft, used divination, practiced sorcery and dealt with mediums and spiritists" (2 Chron. 33:6).

It seems if there were a false god to worship, Manasseh did just that, violating all God's commands in the process.

The problem, though, wasn't just that Manasseh's soul was at stake. Scripture says it was much worse in that his actions led an entire nation to sin: "Thus Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jeruslem to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the sons of Israel" (2 Chron. 33:9, my italics).

In 2 Kings, the author writes, "Manasseh seduced them to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the sons of Israel" (21:9, my italics).

The words "misled" from Chronicles and "seduced" from Kings are the same Hebrew word "ta'ah" defined as: "to err, to wander, and to go astray. The meaning of this Hebrew word primarily rests in the notion of wandering about...Figuratively, it is used in reference to one who is intoxicated...Most often, however, it refers to erring or being misled in a moral or religious sense" (Baker & Carpenter 1238).

How apt a description--the seducer's actions intoxicating those around him, causing them to make poor decisions, too.

In other words, Manasseh lived a life that said, "Look at me! I can disobey God and get away with it! All those curses and consequences!? No big deal! God didn't mean us!"

The people watched, were intoxicated by the thought of sinning without consequences, and were led into sin themselves.

The apostle Paul would have described Manasseh as a man who "suppress[ed] the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom. 1:18).

Yes, every person is responsible for his/her own actions; as Paul said, "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20).

But even still, I don't want to stand before God on judgment day and have Him show me a sea of faces whom I seduced to sin...whom I misled into hell.

With our every action that goes against God's Word...

With our every sin that "seems" to go unpunished...

When we live lives that disobey God, we unintentionally seduce others.

How terrifying to think that right now, we could be misleading others--our neighbors, our family, our friends, our children, our spouses--into mirrored paths of sin.

*Baker and Carpenter. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. AMG, 2003.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I Don't Love Jesus

My four-year-old bounced off the desk as I sang to him the first few bars of "I love you a bushel and a peck."

"Where did you learn that, mommy?"

I told him of my daddy's father, Grandpa John. The nearly ever-present grin. The mischief. I was in college when he died and couldn't attend the funeral. It was a death that left behind a silence where his laughter and those oft-sung words once were.

With the word "death" spoken, Wyatt launched into one of those impromptu discussions I would have been more prepared for at breakfast than right before bedtime.

During the conversation, I said, "You love Jesus, right?"

Wyatt responded immediately. "No."

That wasn't a response I expected. An image of a "Bad Mother of the Year" trophy loomed in my mind.

"Yes, you do," I insisted, then asked the question a second time. Consistent as always, Wyatt's answer still didn't change. "No." Then, in that sing-song childlike voice, he added, "Weeellllllll...I try to love Jesus. But then my heart goes real, real fast. And then I'm naughty. I don't want to be naughty, but I still do naughty things."

Later, after the conversation was over, I was met with the still silence that only comes after lights out to a two-year-old-twin-filled household. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this child was right and I was wrong.

I say I love Jesus. I believe that with my being. But many times, that love is an empty statement much like those mandatory paper valentines I would receive from each classmate in elementary school. In truth, my actions belied those words.

Loving Jesus isn't difficult. Jesus describes very succinctly what should be our greatest priority: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment" (Matt. 22:37)-8.

In another passage, Jesus explains exactly what it means to "Love the Lord your God": "If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love" (Jn. 15:10).

The definition of loving God could be simplified as "obeying God."

In the Old Testament, God's words to Israel are equally simple concerning how the people were to show their love to God. God explained how He would bless and curse His chosen people based on their level of obedience and love toward Him.

Through Moses, He said, "I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments" (Deut. 30:16).

The interesting thing is that God knew His people didn't have a chance of loving Him on their own in this manner. So, He declared,"Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live"(Deut. 30:6).

Through the Holy Spirit, God has circumcised all Christians' hearts so we can love Him with all our heart and all our soul. But like Israel, our hearts still have a tendency to stray--even if in just the smallest of ways.

And with each straying is a little bit less "all", a little less love for God.

We say we love Him; yet, do we regularly spend no time in prayer with Him daily? Are our schedules so packed that we have no time to minister to others? Do we casually disobey one or more of His commands because we think it's not a big deal? Do we still participate in some "harmless" sin even though God's Spirit has prompted us to stop?

Do our actions reflect our saying "I love Jesus"?

Or should our honest answer really be, "No."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

To Love the Unworthy

It started when I was in college. For reasons I still don't understand, God breathed into me a spirit of discernment concerning people. Since that time, He has told me many times "beware," "hold back,"or "stay alert."

But I haven't always listened, choosing instead to think that the voice must be wrong...choosing to instead to live in denial of what my heart knew. After all, everyone else liked the person, so what was my problem? As you can imagine, I've reaped many a hurt from not paying attention to my "God-sense."

Awhile back, a man and a woman came into my family's life. Everyone around us welcomed them with exuberant, open arms, but I held back. The bells and sirens were going off again. From the very start, I felt something was wrong, even if I couldn't put my finger on it.

As the months passed, though, God prompted me to show love to these people. I was confused, unable to reconcile what I believed were Godly warning bells with Godly instructions to reach out anyway.

So, I pulled a Gideon, asking God for confirmation that I was, indeed, to demonstrate His love in a specific way towards this couple. Before I turned in that night, He did just that.

And I obeyed. More than once, I sacrificed my time, prayers, money, and talents to show one man and one woman that God's love is real.

I sacrificed, knowing that I would not get anything in return from them for they had nothing to give...and secretly, I hoped the bells were wrong.

Over the past month, though, some of the truth has begun to surface. I felt used, like my gift of His love was in service of a scam. And I asked God why He had me get involved at all?

His answer was firm, but swift--who was I to question whom He wanted me to show HIS love to? After all, was I deserving of His love? Had I anything to give Him in return for all the love He had bestowed upon me through others?

He then directed me to 1 John 4: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him....Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:7-11).

To show others love is to show others the love God gave a completely undeserving you and me when He sent Jesus to die for our sin.

Likewise, to deny others His love just because I believe them unworthy or undeserving of it is not possible if God lives in me as master of my life. In fact, a few verses later, John puts it quite bluntly, "Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar" (v. 20).

We are called to love, and HE is the reason.

I love how the NIV version puts it: "Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them...In this world we are Jesus" (v. 16-17).

In this world we are Jesus.

Even if we know a person can never give us anything and that it will always be a "take-take" relationship...

Even if we believe our act of love would be better served elsewhere...

Even if...

Yes, we are to love with our eyes wide open, not with an ostrich-like head stuck in the sand.

But still, we are to obey His voice, for you and I are called to love as Jesus loves.