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.