Sunday, August 28, 2011

The American Work Ethic--Why it Isn't Working

Down at my in-law's house, the talk is serious against a background of giggling children, heaping plates of made-from-scratch chicken pot pie, and a classic episode of Winnie the Pooh.

I sit on the brick ledge by the fireplace, listening as my father in law talks farm news hot off the wire--of hay prices, fertilizer, and the widespread effect on the larger economy, of livestock auctions taking only so many head of cattle before shutting their gates. It's the continuing drought in the Texas/Missouri/Louisiana area along with the drawn-out recession that make him lean back a bit deeper into the recliner.

Arms crossed, he speaks of one farmer who brought his prize horse to auction, "one of those good breeds," and didn't even get a bid while another brought his mare home because the bids barely got off the ground. With one round bale of hay going for $100+ versus the usual $35, people aren't able to afford to keep their livestock.

"This rate, there won't be a market," he says, looking far past me to the potential long-term effects on this hay farm. Already this past winter, he opted to skip fertilizing the field behind the house, prices too steep for the rate of return.

Even this green farmer's wife readily shakes her head in agreement, thinking back to the weekly supermarket run. It's the whole concept of inflation--getting less for your money. Reuters even recently reported that "36 percent of workers don’t use all of their allotted vacation days." Without vacation days, we're working even more for less.In a recession, the American work ethic of toiling away incessantly for the sake of progress just doesn't seem to be getting much traction. Imagine my surprise when I opened the Word of God this week and saw the same exact problem!

The year was around 520 B.C., the time of the prophets Ezra and Haggai, sixteen years after King Cyrus had allowed the captive Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

Fourteen years later, work on the temple was at a standstill until God sent Haggai to the people, saying, "Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?'" (Hag. 1:4).

The people of Israel had been toiling hard, trying to build their lives back. It's understandable. They lost 70 years in captivity only to return home to ruins and a land reclaimed by the wilderness and foreigners. Yet, the reference here to "paneled houses" implies that many of the people had not only rebuilt their houses by this time, but that some were wealthy enough to have walls and ceilings overlaid with cedar panels as was done in King Solomon's sumptuous palace (1 Kin. 7:3-7).

Rebuilding a home, a life wasn't why God was critiquing them. Getting so caught up in their labors that they forgot about God was the real issue. God says, "'You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes" (Hag. 1:6).

Sound familiar? Never having enough to be satisfied? Always needing more no matter how much we earn? This concept is familiar, may even stick in our throat a bit. But it's not what God meant.

He continues: "You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?' declares the LORD of hosts, 'Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house. Therefore, because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on men, on cattle, and on all the labor of your hands'” (v. 9-11).

It's not that the people were harvesting more yet still wanting more. No, it's that they harvested less as they toiled more, harder, longer, a result of God bringing drought on the land to intentionally thwart their labors, and all because their spiritual priorities needed reordering!

This was not merely a simple drought of the land, though. God explains, "when one came to a grain heap of twenty measures, there would be only ten; and when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there would be only twenty. 'I smote you and every work of your hands with blasting wind, mildew and hail; yet you did not come back to Me,' declares the Lord" (Hag. 2:16-17).

With all creation at His disposal, God was using lack of "dew," hurricane force winds, mildew, hail to call the Israelites back to Him. The result was that 50-60% of the expected harvest was lost*. Work more, earn less.

While I'm not about to claim that the South's current drought or America's present economic situation is completely caused by a people's need to reorder its spiritual priorities, the similarities between post-exile Israel and modern-day America are too striking to ignore.

For the Israelites, coming back to God started with rebuilding the temple of God. While there is no one temple of stone today, there are many temples of flesh. Paul says, "Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16).

The old American work ethic is not what is needed for our country to prosper and be blessed. Instead, a reordering of spiritual priorities must occur...and this reordering must begin with the temple of God--both within the hearts of individuals and within the heart of the church.

*The MacArthur Commentary.

Image 1: U.S. Department of Agriculture (
Image 2: from the web magazine Good. A new infographic on “The Overworked American” based on Department of Labor statistics.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Divorce: One Pebble's Ripples

I did not grow up in a broken home. In fact, my family life was extremely solid by today's standards. Yet, even with both my mother and father lovingly raising me together, I was still impacted by brokenness caused by divorce.

When I was too young to remember, my aunt and her husband divorced. In that blurry pasture of early memories mixed together without order or connection to linear time, I heard the word divorce for the first time. In one memory, I stand with my brother and mother in the dark entrance way of their house, the one with the water bed that rolls waves when I push down with my hand, the porcelain array of "don't touch" owls in the bathroom by the toilet, and special coloring pages to take home. In the next memory, there is nothing but tears, hurt, and silence...lots of silence.

During the eighties, sitting your children down to explain problems, getting everything out in the open, just wasn't done, at least not in my family. In fact, after the divorce was final, we never spoke of it except for in passing. Even now when I ask my mother, she doesn't remember much, not even if I were in school yet or if the last time I saw them together really did happen in the summertime like in that mental picture where I peer at a distance through heavy crepe myrtles lining chain link fence, knowing they are past the bounty-filled vegetable garden and in the weathered barn where I am not allowed to go.

After the divorce, for every heated "discussion" my parents would have, I waited for the D word to appear. Once--only once--after a disagreement, my mother went for a drive to get some space, cool off. I can still feel the house's quietness after she left, how terrified I was that she wouldn't come back. Even years later as a teenager, when my parents sat my brother and me down to tell us some serious news, I remember that cold feeling that "This is it." (It wasn't.)

I was married with children of my own before I gave voice to these fears my mother never knew to help me overcome. To this day, they still raise their ugly head in the occasional nightmare that rips me from sleep or nagging day thoughts that strike my own marriage when I don't take them captive.

No. I did not grow up in a broken home, so it almost seems like I am ill equipped to speak on the topic of divorce. Even so, I've been impacted by its effects on an aunt whom I love dearly, on our entire extended family, and on me.

Marriage should not end in divorce. It wasn't meant to be this way. God said, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh" (Gen 2:24). The two became one, and it was good.

But like all good things in a fallen world, sin corrupts, distorts, alters from what was intended. Please know that I am not here to condemn anyone who has been through a divorce. I only know that only when a person understands covenant can she understand why God hates divorce and why the marriage covenant is that much more important to keep (or enter into in the beginning)!

When people use the Bible as a weapon to attack divorce, they usually quote Malachi 2:16 where God says, "'For I hate divorce,' says the LORD, the God of Israel." Yes, God hates divorce. The word "hate" means just what it says. Two verses earlier explains why God feels this way: "the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant" (Mal. 2:14, my italics).

Marriage is a covenant. God serves as a witness to each marriage covenant just as he served as a witness to countless covenants in the Old Testament, and as a "witness," God is also a judge, enforcer of the covenant.

Just as when Jacob and Laban entered into covenant and Laban said, "God is witness between you and me....The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us" (Gen. 31:50,53), the same is true of marriage covenants--God will uphold the sanctity of a covenant long after man has pushed it aside.

Over the past month, this space has discussed numerous aspects of the old covenant and how it is fulfilled in the new covenant in Christ Jesus. While I can't possibly cover everything in-depth in one post, consider in brief how the covenant aspects we've already discussed in previous articles apply to the covenant of marriage as well:

1. Covenant partners should take care of each other's descendants. Just as Jonathan told David, "‘The LORD will be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever’'" (1 Sam.20:42), so, too, in a marriage covenant, spouses are to care for their descendants, their children.

2. Covenant partners lay aside their oneness and put on a "two become one" identity. In the Old Testament, marriage is demonstrated in the covering of oneself with a garment such as a robe, an idea demonstrated when Ruth told Boaz, "spread your covering over your maid" (Ruth 3:9). With Ruth, the garment literally covered both, figuratively showing the two as one. With Jonathan's giving of the robe to David, the garment also demonstrates a "putting on" of the other person, both beautiful images of the making of two persons into one through covenant.

3. Covenant partners must protect each other from their enemies. The covenant between David and Jonathan put this to the test, especially when Jonathan's father, King Saul, became David's enemy, seeking his very life. Yet, because of covenant, Jonathan protected David, showing that the bonds of covenant supersede bonds of blood. Likewise, in marriage, a spouse's allegiance to his covenant partner takes precedence over his allegiance to a blood relative, even if that relative is a parent. God implied as much when He created marriage, saying to Adam and Eve who had no fleshly father and mother that "a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife" (Gen. 2:24).

4. Covenant partners should have a permanent token of remembrance. While in Scripture, this token differs from covenant to covenant (from a rainbow to a monument of stones), with the traditional marriage covenant, the exchanged wedding rings serve as a symbol of remembrance.

5. Covenant partners often celebrate the covenant with a feast. While not particularly important in its application, this does serve to explain the origins of huge wedding feasts.

6. Covenant partners enter into a permanent covenant. When King Saul broke a covenant Joshua and the leaders of Israel made with the Gibeonites, the entire nation of Israel was punished. When King Zedekiah made and broke an oath with ease, God let the king know a covenant was stronger than a man's will. The implication in both covenants is that while man may break a covenant, deem it null and void, God does not do the same. A covenant of marriage is a life sentence. Even if it were a hasty marriage of one's youth or a marriage to an unbeliever, the details do not disqualify the covenant.

This leads to the question, "Why?" Why is the covenant of marriage so important? In Gary Thomas' Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?, he argues that the marriage relationship is designed to show the world what a relationship with Christ should be.

Paul relates this concept of marriage between man and woman with the concept of a person joining together with Christ: "'For He says, 'THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.' But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him" (1 Cor. 6:17).

Marriage is an earthly relationship mirroring the relationship between each Christian and Christ, Himself. Together, Christians are the bride of Christ. We become one with Him. Our covenant relationship with Christ takes precedence over all other relationships.

It is permanent, unbreakable.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

One Person's Trash is Another's Treasure

This weekend, my "Oh! THIS is why I married him!!" husband has gone beyond the call of duty and taken complete care of our three energetic preschoolers while I've nursed a head cold. Actually, the nursing part isn't quite accurate since the word implies I was doing something to help my situation, which I wasn't, unless crashing, sleeping, and staying out of the way counts.

Tonight was to be the last installment in our series on covenant in Scripture. To my chagrin, the party will need to be postponed until next week, God willing.

The good news is I've been waiting since January for the right time to share an article with you, one that has radically transformed my vision of how I perceive "just another tract."

When God made me too ill to form a good sentence, he also mysteriously caused the article to re-emerge yesterday afternoon from its position at the bottom of one of several stacks in the kitchen. To be able to find this specific 7-month-old article with no effort? Divine intervention is the only rational possibility.

The story doesn't sound like anything out of the ordinary. Its title reads: "Chinese woman leads dozens to Christ with 70¢ tract"

We Christians are notorious for passing out tracts by the dozens because we believe the words of Isaiah 55:11: "So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it."

But what if one of those tracts is trampled in the mud? Ripped apart? As author Sue Sprenkle learned, this abandoned, mistreated lone tract from the Southern Cross project was still specially used by God simply because of how it got into Lily Wang's hands.

To read the rest of Lily's story, one showing God at His best work, click here. (Seriously, go read this article. You will be blessed).


One woman. One lone tract blown across town, through the filth covering alleyways until it was so disgustingly pungent, no one wanted to do anything with it but burn it. And yet, in Lily Wang's hands, it became treasure, a treasure she hoarded not for herself but that she continued to use to lead 40 others to saving faith in Christ.

A Bible is still difficult to obtain in China. Voices of the Martyrs estimates there’s only one Bible for every 222 people. To see how many Bibles China would allow in your hometown, use MReport's Bible Calculator. I promise you'll be surprised.

This is where YOU and I come in. We can be involved in getting Bibles to China without even traveling to Asia. Each packet of Bibles costs about $3.45. The packets include a Bible, the Jesus Film, various tracts and Christian DVDs. Our giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and Cooperative Program helps to support workers to coordinate this project. Funding for Bibles and distribution materials comes from other sources.

Southern Cross also needs 36 new teams to come work three different popular Chinese vacation spots in Asia. To learn how to be involved in giving to this Bible project or to get involved on one of these 36 teams of the Southern Cross Project, e-mail

Who knows. Maybe you and I could provide the next trash-to-treasure tract for that soul seeking God.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bearing the Permanent Marks

In The Blood Covenant, Clay Trumbull (a late 1800s clergyman) explores the concept of covenant, a binding agreement, and how it permeates cultures around the globe, even those not reached by modern Christianity. No matter how remote the culture, each one he encountered in his studies demonstrated understanding of the solemnity of "cutting covenant" with another.

From the darkest heart of the African Jungle to the deserts of the Middle East and on into Europe and Asia--cultures throughout time have shared many significant similarities when it comes to cutting covenants, from the sacrifice / shedding of blood (Gen. 15 & 31, Ex. 24) and partaking of a meal to the sharing of gifts and creating a visible sign to memorialize the covenant.

In one passage, Trumbull writes of African blood covenants as witnessed by Christian missionary and explorer Dr. Livingston: "Commander several illustrations of the observance of this rite...'The first operation consisted of making an incision on each of their right wrists, just sufficient to draw blood; a little of which was scraped off and smeared on the other's cut; after which gunpowder was rubbed in [thereby securing a permanent token on the arm]'" (p. 15-16).

At first, this blood rite may not seem like anything found in the Old Testament. Yet, while the intentional maiming oneself and the co-mingling of literal blood may not be found in its pages, the intentional marking of one's body as a sign of covenant definitely is.

The second time God entered into covenant with Abraham, He gave two memorial signs--the changing of names and circumcision. God says, "No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham...This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you....But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (Gen. 17:5, 10-11,14).

The first memorial of this covenant is the changing of Abram and Sarai's name. Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary says, "Some think it added to the honour of Abraham’s new name that a letter of the name Jehovah was inserted into it, as it was a disgrace to Jeconiah to have the first syllable of his name cut off, because it was the same as the first syllable of the sacred name, Jer. 22:28 . Believers are named from Christ, Eph. 3:15."

What a beautiful depiction of how God's covenant would find its fulfillment later in the New Covenant, with God, Himself, inserting not merely the letter of His name into our names but His Spirit, Himself, within all Christians--Yahweh within us.

While the symbolism of this renaming is fulfilled by the Spirit residing within Christians, it seems there is still a literal re-naming of God's people. God tells His people that in the New Zion, "
you will be called by a new name Which the mouth of the LORD will designate" (Is. 62:2). In the New Testament, the apostle John also alludes to those who enter into the New Covenant through the blood of Christ receiving an actual new name: "To him who overcomes, to him I will give...a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it"(Rev. 2:17)

The second memorial of covenant is the act of circumcision, where all male Israelites
were to shed their own blood, symbolizing their being God's covenant people. This was a literal "cutting" of covenant; without the shedding of this blood, God is quite clear that those un-cut should be "cut off" from His people.

While the apostle Paul makes it clear that literal circumcision is no longer necessary for partakers of the New Covenant of faith since "circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter," he mentions other bodily scars as a reminder of his covenant with Christ Jesus, saying, "I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus" (Rom 2:29, Gal. 6:17). Here, Paul does not speak of his actual circumcision as a Jew but likely of scars from many beatings he endured while sharing the gospel. As one who often refers to Himself as the servant/slave of Christ, Paul also may be referring to himself (and other Christians by extension) as having a literal brand or "seal" similar to those that slaves would receive in ancient Rome...but if that is the case, then that's the subject of another post entirely.

One other interesting comparison is that in the blood covenant of Livingstone's Africans, both covenant partners would have had remaining visible scars. Similarly, God describes Himself as having cut His own palms to remind Himself of His covenant promises; He tells His chosen people, "Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands" (Is. 49:16).

While this Scripture does pertain directly to the Old Covenant, one need only look at Christ, Himself, to see the scars of the New Covenant that He still bears.

After His resurrection, Christ appears to His disciples with the scars of His sacrifice: "Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing'" (Jn. 20:27). Even in Scripture's final vision of heaven, the apostle John makes sure to describe Christ as appearing with the scars of the New Covenant, as "a Lamb standing, as if slain" (Rev. 5:6).

Even in its non-religious uses in cultures around the globe, the historical understanding of covenant seems to show even more so that we modern-day Christians have lost our way simply because we have minimized what a covenant is supposed to be.

The marks on our Savior's body aren't just so someone can pick Him out of a lineup or a painting hanging in an art gallery. They are tokens of remembrance, marks of everlasting one.