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.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Best is Yet to Come

Two years ago, my church sat one last time in the gymnasium, its blue plush chairs lined in rigid rows before the altar. While we sat together in body, we were divided in spirit by a rift so wide, I wondered how long it had been silently growing. Where one church gathered, at night's end, two churches went their separate ways. My heart bowed with my head as I listened to sounds of feet shuffling away--my friends, sisters, brothers, mentors.

I grieved that most of those relationships would be permanently severed, even though I honestly just wanted healing and reconciliation. While I have been blessed to keep in loving contact with a few of those who left our fellowship and have even had the pleasure of catching up with a few others in Chick-Fil-A and Wal-Mart, I have felt real anger from others who have literally done a 180 upon seeing my face or, if flight were impossible, given a mumbled hello before coldly moving away.

There has been such heartache, such loss.

This past Thursday, an elderly lady I loved dearly went to be with the Father. She rocked my babies, was a spunky example of how passionately active for Jesus I want to be when I am her age. Every so often, she would call out of the blue just to ask how the children were doing or to talk crafts with me--how did I sew on the felt pieces to the Christmas tree skirt, how much poly-fill stuffing did it take, had I used this yarn before. After she left, though, the phone calls stopped.

I didn't call her either. It's not that I didn't think about her. I did. I prayed for her, thought about stopping each time I passed her house. I simply didn't know what to say, how to talk around the elephant in the room...or whether my friendship would still even be welcome.

Friday evening, I slipped into the wake early, wanting to pay my respects without making a scene. Her children were and still are beautiful, kind people. I caught up with many others, us both stumbling through the awkwardness with love. And yet, there was still the one whose hostility at my presence was exposed, unconcealable. When I turned to leave, I heard that one say, "She's one of the ones who..."

I kept walking, cursed my excellent hearing. Still...still...I was the enemy. Back in the van, it was all I could do to put the vehicle into gear and not burst into tears.

In times like these, it is so easy to think of the "good old days" before the split, when the church pews were mostly filled for worship services and our voices raised loudly as one in unity, when there was no one I was alienated from, when no one who was bitter at me over where I chose to worship.

It is ironic that my personal remembering coincides with this weekend's tenth anniversary of September 11. There's been a lot of us looking back over the past few days.

Remembering is good. We learn. We mature. We grieve. But in the past is not a place we can remain if we want to truly live. To daily compare the bad now to the good before the tragedy is to cultivate within our souls an attitude of ingratitude toward what God has given us in the present.

In the book of Ezra, when Israel returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon, rebuilding the temple was of great importance to restoring Israel's sacrificial system, their only way through the law to obtain forgiveness for sin. Once the temple's foundation was built, there was great celebration as those born in captivity celebrated this symbol of progress.

Yet, the ones who had seen the former temple wept: "Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people" (Ez. 3:12-13).

While some of the weeping was due to happiness over this restoration, many tears were shed because of how ordinary this temple foundation was in comparison to the luxurious original built by Solomon, because even when physically restored, God's presence was not residing within the holy of holies as He once had.

This concept of disappointment is confirmed when later at the temple's completion, God spoke through the prophet Haggai: "'Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it seem to you like nothing in comparison?'" (Hag. 2:3).

God then reminded the people to be courageous and not look only to the past and what was but to the future and what is to come: "I will fill this house with glory...The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former' says the LORD of hosts, 'and in this place I will give peace,'" (Hag. 2:7, 9). Here, God told them to not look backwards but forwards to the Messiah's coming, to what was to come for the millennial temple--a future where every nation would bow before Christ in His holy temple, its holy place illuminated by a Savior whose glory would be undimmed by wrappings of flesh.

The people obviously listened and understood because after the temple's completion, Scripture says, "And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had caused them to rejoice" (Ez. 6:22). This time, there is no reference to weeping. This time, only joy.

"In comparison," our today may seem "like nothing" when looked at through the rosy lens of the past. Yet, just as the Israelites chose to not focus on what was once great but on God's great blessings in the present, so should we, too.

Perhaps these are truly the last of the last days. Perhaps America may never return to her former "glory days." Perhaps our families will never be what they once were.

Even so, we must be thankful, give honor for whatever blessings He offers in the here and now, and as always, keep our eyes fixed on the Savior and His return.

We know how the book ends. The best is always yet to come.

"You think you've seen the sun, but you ain't seen it shine...Wait till you see that sunshine place ain't nothin' like it here"

Image: The Best Is Yet To Come Wall Decal @ Etsy

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Finding Out You Can't Sing

My daughter sits in the top of the buggy, hands reaching out for whatever is in arm's reach, all while singing at the top of her lungs. At almost three, Amelia has trouble distinguishing between what is an outside versus an inside voice. This time is no different.

As I run fingers down book spines, quickly searching the stacks at our favorite thrift store, I listen, trying to make out the tune. I can't. I listen harder only to realize her words are so run together that I can't understand anything...except the word Jesus. Every few loudly sung non-words, I clearly hear Jesus followed by more nonsense, then Jesus again.

My cheeks flush as I bite my tongue. Half the store can hear, but how can I tell her to hush when she's singing a heart's praise? Isn't that what I've taught? To sing like there is an audience of One, soul turned upward to the Father?

All too often, this world makes real singing impossible. Even when we should be singing praises to God in worship, sometimes the pain of life, the suffering, overwhelm our fleshly senses to the point where we feel a song can't pass our lips or when it does, it is as mere emotionless words. Other times, self consciousness about what others might think turns our heart song into a whisper, especially if we have a talent for being off key.

When the Israelites lived captive in Babylon, they also had a problem with singing real songs from the heart. The Psalmist, perhaps even the prophet Jeremiah, writes:

"By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'

How can we sing the LORD’S song
In a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:1-4).

Why the Israelites brought their harps with them is unclear. Did they bring the instruments for comfort's sake, soothing familiarity in far away land? Did they keep them for preservation's sake when all Jerusalem was being burned, a hope that they would be used once again by Levites in worship when they returned home?

Whatever the reasoning, they seemed to be unable to use the harps for comfort or even worship away from the temple. The mere sight of the instrument caused them to remember and weep. But instead of packing away the harps in storage or hiding them in the cleft of a rock, the people of God "hung" their harps in plain sight when they "remembered." The Hebrew word used here means "to cause to be remembered,"* implying the people were consciously sitting down in their captivity, forcing themselves to remember and grieve, not an instance where they merely fell into a heap when overwhelmed by sudden emotion.

Although with downtrodden spirits in this conscious grief, the people of God had hearts that still could have sung in worship to God. Scripture commands, "in everything give thanks"(1 Thes. 5:18). The Psalmist even advised, "This is the day which the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Ps. 118:24). Yet, like many of us have likewise felt at moments such as these, the Israelites could only focus on what was lost versus on what God was still providing in His every-present mercy. They could only send up lamentations instead of praise, unable to see God at work in their present circumstances, "In a foreign land."

Despite their seeming inability to choose praising God through song, Israel was still required by her captors to sing. And so they sang, out of compulsion, not out of joy or worship of Yahweh or even out of lamentation. These songs of Zion the captors wanted so badly to hear were hymns of worship, of Israel's history as God's chosen ones, and of God's faithfulness to protect and provide. Surely, the captors wanted to hear the words in order to mock the slaves...and to mock the God of Israel.

Amidst the mocking and grief, the sung words were empty, soul disconnected from words.

Only when the captives were returned to Israel seventy years later did their souls soar enough to feel like singing once again to God:

"When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter
And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
'The LORD has done great things for them.'
The LORD has done great things for us;
We are glad" (Ps. 126: 1-3).

The King James Version translates "joyful shouting" in verse 2 as "singing," the Hebrew word ranan meaning "to be overcome," "to cry out, shout for joy, give a ringing cry."* It is this type of soul overflowing song of praise that is generally thought to be true worship, when the heart cannot not sing because of joy.

Yet, I would argue that even this is not the fullness of what a song to God will one day be.

Although Israel had returned home to Jerusalem, their question, "How can we sing the LORD’S song In a foreign land?" was and still is a pertinent question.

Peter refers to Christians as "aliens and strangers"--blood-covered, spirit-filled foreigners living in a sin-stained earth (1 Pet. 2:11). Perhaps, then, God's people can never sing the Lord's song in this foreign, impure land.

If this is true, then consider the singing depicted in Revelation: "And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth" (Rev. 14:3).

This "new song" sung around the throne may not be filled with uncommon words or a tune man has never heard before. Instead, perhaps it is a newness in that it can only be sung in its fullness by a redeemed soul finally home.

True heart-song singing need not be out of joy. It need not be loud or in time with a harp. In one sense, a raw song of worship, unadorned by instruments yet quietly lifted from a soul that is torn, battered, and in captivity--this is an equal, perhaps greater, song of worship.

Either song, though, is inferior to the one Christians will sing one day before the throne. On that day when we are no longer foreigners but are home once and forevermore, perhaps we children of God will discover none of us has ever been able to sing before. We only thought we knew how.