Sunday, January 29, 2012

How Am I Imperfect? Let Me Count The Ways...

My experience with trying to be a perfectionist hasn't meshed too well with parenthood. Each time I try being a perfect wife/mother/housekeeper, I'm determined to find a Perfectionists' Anonymous group.

In mere seconds, I can manufacture my own indoor-whirlwind, tear through the house on a mission to recapture some version of perfection, and end up maiming my husband, children, and a few cats in the process. It's not pretty. Ask my family. And so, I try, instead, to leave the perfection mark behind me and live each preschooler-twin-filled day with a bucket-load of God's mercy and grace...along with constant knee-bending failure, knowing that I will likely never feel like I am in sight of measuring up, not ever again.

Christ, though, tells me to take my best shot at perfection anyway: "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:38).

It's a verse that, frankly, has made me flippantly say, "Yeah, yeah. Act like Jesus" and push forward to the next verse because the gut conviction is always there, always. This verse has made me feel like a failure in more ways and at more times than I can count--all while I really am striving to be like Christ and the Holy Spirit lives within me!

It goes something like this: Yelled at Wyatt because he filled 12 cups with water versus dressed himself to go prayer walking. Failure. Growled at husband for not being home on time last night. Failure. Anger in my heart. Failure. And this was all before breakfast was over.

With this kind of morning, it would be easy to turn my back on that verse in Matthew. God doesn't work that way, though. In His providence, He led me to an eight week study of the book of James where, four verses in, he uses the same exact Greek word for "perfect" (teleios) that Christ used above in the Sermon on the Mount.

James speaks of enduring trials of one's faith, saying, "And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (Jas. 1:4). Later, when speaking of controlling the tongue (one of those trials of faith), he says, "For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well" (Jas. 3:2)

I looked it up.

Perfect does mean perfect (sigh). But it's something more, too. Strong's defines it as "
brought to its end, finished; wanting nothing necessary to completeness"* The Expositor's Bible Commentary defines "perfect" the same way: "that which has achieved or reached its goal, objective, purpose...full-grown...fully developed."**

While I tend to view being perfect as an all or nothing proposition where I'm either perfect or I'm not, God's version of perfect is different--it's a process of endurance with an end goal in sight.

Instead of beating ourselves up for demonstrating our obviously imperfect selves, based on this definition, we should understand that being perfect means daily walking a path towards perfection, something that although we attempt to practice now, we won't completely have until we have become fully grown in the faith.

God knows we are works in progress. It's the direction that's important.

A second concept I'm beginning to grasp is that perfection is not something we are to do alone. Yes, Christians all have the Holy Spirit within to lead them in the paths of righteousness, so we are never really becoming perfect "alone." But, it's more than that.

The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary states, "Paul revealed his understanding of the necessity of working together towards perfection when he stated that the goal of his ministry was to be able to 'present everyone mature' (Col. 1:28). Therefore, all Christians are reminded that the goal is to help one another reach completeness as Paul was striving to do in his ministry" (1275).

This is why we are to "neglect not the assembling of yourselves" together in corporate worship. This is why we are to sit under Scripture-based teachers who will drag us kicking and screaming through the tough, convicting verses we might blink right over if left to our own devices. This is why it is important to have an accountability partner who helps us on our road to becoming mature Christians.

In the end, I've decided if Matthew 5:38 doesn't stick in our throats,
perhaps that is of more concern than if it does. Are we striving in the Spirit in the direction of perfection? Or are we comfortable in our imperfections?

If those fleshly imperfections don't gnaw at our conscience, making us repent and turn to God, that's a bigger soul problem than a morning full of failures on a path upward.

*Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for teleios (Strong's 5046)". Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2012. 29 Jan 2012. < http://
Strongs=G5046&t=KJV >

**Expositor's Bible Commentary. Vol. 12. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990: 203.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Revival That Never Burns Out

My church is kneeling alongside many others in the State of Louisiana, all knocking on heaven's door, petitioning God, crying out for revival. Twenty-one days of fasting and prayer.

In whispers, in loud voices, we come together in unity and ask for God's revival to come to our State. Yet, in the still silence of my prayer closet, I have admitted to my heavenly Father what He already knows anyway--that my flesh is more than a little scared of revival.

Being revived isn't always easy. Being revived doesn't always lead us where we expect to be.

As a young adult, I understood revival to mean people would be miraculously drawn to the church until it was standing room only in a building where over half the seats were usually vacant. I envisioned The Great Awakening happening again, with my generation being washed down the aisles to the altar where they left their sin and were covered by the blood. I saw a period where the light of Christianity would not only fill the pulpits but also the darkest corners of the world outside the church's doors so that holiness blanketed the surrounding community like an overnight snowfall--silent in its coming but unmistakable in the light of morning.

Then, my church began praying for revival. And it came. But it was nothing like what I had read in the history books. Instead, revival ripped through my church as a refining fire that scorched and burned deep, as an earthquake heaving the very ground in two with part of my spiritual family on either side of the chasm.

When the earth stopped moving. When only fine tendrils of smoke rose from the charred joists remaining on their firm foundation. Then, I realized--this was revival. This was what I had prayed for.

I also learned something more: this revival we prayed for was not the end result. Revival is only the beginning.

In the book of Nehemiah, revival happened. It started when those returned exiles from Babylon gathered round to read the law: "And all the people gathered as one man at the square....Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it before the square...from early morning until midday" (Neh. 8:1-3).

The Levites "explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading" (8:7-8).

Whether the returning exiles no longer understood Hebrew or whether the Levites were just explaining the meaning behind the words so that the people understood--I don't know. Yet, what happened next is certain--God's Spirit came down to bring revival.

Upon hearing the Law, the people's hearts were convicted of their sin so that "all the people were weeping" (8:9). Ezra and the Levites even had to tell the people to calm down, to stop weeping and, instead, praise the Lord because this was a set time of celebration, a great festival of joy.

"Because they understood the words which had been made known to them," what happened next was a Feast of Booths like Israel had not seen since the days of Joshua: "The entire assembly of those who had returned from captivity made booths and lived in them....And there was great rejoicing. He [Ezra] read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day" (8:12, 17-18).

This revival brought great unity--between God and man as well as among all God's people.

After seven days of reading God's word, the people, the people were changed so that "on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them...and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers" (9:1-2).

This is a good vision of revival: the people of God. In unity. Fasting. Confessing their sins. Worshiping God. And, in the end, making a new covenant with God, "taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God's law, which was given through Moses, God's servant, and to keep and to observe all the commandments of GOD our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes" (10:29).

It all seems wonderful. Yet, two chapters later, when Nehemiah returns after a trip to Babylon, he finds God's people have fallen back into their old ways. They have "forsaken" the house of God, neglected to pay tithes, worked on the Sabbath, defiled the priesthood, and intermarried with foreigners so that "their children...none of them was able to speak the language of Judah" (13:11,24).

Revival was purifying. Joyful. Necessary. Yet, revival was not the end result.

Nehemiah seeks to show us that once revival comes, God's people must still rely on Him to maintain revival in their lives, to persevere in a sin-fallen world.

After revival comes, our relationship with God still needs constant maintenance and the knowledge that yes, an end is coming...but this isn't it.

To sustain revival once it comes, we must worship Him daily in continued song, prayer, and fasting. We must stay in the Word. We cannot allow ourselves to grow apathetic in thinking we have achieved what we prayed for, so that's it.

No. This isn't it. Not until the eastern skies break open and Christ comes to reign as Lord.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

When God Uses One Finger

One hand held the morning's three Cheerio cups, yesterday's mail, my Bible study book, a few crumpled church bulletins from under the seat, and the empty purple lunch pail. The other gripped handles of as many grocery bags as I could heft without dropping the house keys. With no hands left, I stuffed my winter coat under my left arm and my cell phone in my mouth before starting a lop-sided hobble towards the door.

I hadn't even lowered the bags to the floor before hearing "Mommy? Can you put on my helmet?" quickly echoed twice more.

As I opened my mouth to drop the cell phone on the table, I scowled at my oldest already standing at my side with green dino bicycle helmet, completely oblivious to his pack mule mother's load.

"You'll just have to wait a minute. I only have two hands and they're busy at the moment."

Later when I told the twins to wait for something unrelated, Wyatt interrupted and said, "Yes, wait Amelia and Emerson. Remember. She only has two hands, you know.

This is a good concept for my children to learn; it teaches them patience. My problem, though, is I tend to unconsciously think of God this way--a God with His two hands full.

A student of the Old Testament will be quite familiar with verses mentioning the "hand" of God, referring to His protection, His power, His comfort, His wrath, among other things. While these references are many, only a few times does Scripture mention what God can do with just one finger.

God's finger is first referenced in Exodus after the plagues of blood, flies, and gnats. Pharaoh's magicians tried to mimic the miracle but couldn't and told Pharaoh, "'This is the finger of God'" (Ex. 8:19). While the magicians were merely using this phrase to reference God's power, it seems a fitting description of an all powerful God the Egyptians didn't understand, especially since later on in the book of Exodus, God does just that--uses His finger to write the Law: "When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God" (Ex. 31:18).

In a third reference, the Psalmist mentions God's fingers, but this time not as a writing utensil:

"When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?" (Ps. 8:3-4).

The moon. The stars. The heavens. Creation, itself, is a work of God's fingers. Consider the magnitude of that phrasing. Whereas you and I endure sweaty, back-breaking labor, using our entire bodies including muscles we didn't know we had, all to construct some individual creation on a miniature scale, the image here is of God effortlessly sweeping His fingers through the black nothingness like a creative child let loose with finger paint, those fingers moving smoothly back and forth like an accomplished harpist, weaving the massive void into intricate being.

In the New Testament, the finger of God is only referenced twice. One echoes God's using His finger to write the Law on the stone tablets. This time, though, when the Pharisees brought forth a woman caught in adultery and read forth that God-finger-written Law of Moses, the finger of God dipped not in stone but in the dirt: "But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.' Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground" (Jn. 8:6-8).

The part of the God-head who wrote the Law had sent One down to fulfill the Law...and to explain the concept of reconciliation to the Father through Him, an image depicted here as He wrote in the dirt and offered the woman a chance to go forth and leave behind her sin versus receive condemnation and death.

Finally, Jesus, Himself, references the "finger of God" when taking on the Pharisees. He said, "But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Lk. 11:20). Much like Pharaoh's magicians in Exodus, Christ likely used the phrase to merely reference God's power, which He personally wielded. Yet, again, the imagery is still important in describing a God who doesn't need more than a finger to cast out demons.

We Christians serve a God who at no time has His holy Hands full. It is impossible for our minds to comprehend. But nothing in the visible or invisible world will leave Him juggling or without a hand to outstretch without a moment's notice.

When you read in Scripture of what the "hand" of God can do, just imagine what He can do with one finger.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

When Fear Consumes

Fear can be destructive, distracting, or (worse) debilitating. For those in Christ, faith is the antidote to a life of fear. Yet, as with many things in Scripture, the concept of fear isn't easy to pigeonhole as being all bad.

Before the holidays and the Advent series here, I was well-mired in Ezra and Nehemiah, two prophets God called to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem's wall after the Jews returned home from Babylonian exile.

Even though he was in the center of God's will, the prophet Nehemiah did not have an easy road to walk when overseeing the rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall. As the project progressed, the enemies against this wall rebuilding project were changing their tactics. What began as mere mocking and accusations had escalated to a conspiracy to organize and "fight against Jerusalem" and then turned to threats of murder: "They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work" (Neh. 4:8, 11). Nehemiah could easily have allowed his fear to overcome his faith in God, decide the risk wasn't worth it. But, he didn't. He continued to pray.

When all their plans failed, the enemy then decided to go after Nehemiah directly, four times sending a request for a face-to-face meeting, a certain trap to harm him. With the threats continuing, one man encouraged Nehemiah to hide: "Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you, and they are coming to kill you at night" (Neh. 6:10).

Yet, even with this certain threat to his life, Nehemiah "perceived that...He was hired for this reason, that I might become frightened and act accordingly and sin" (Neh. 6:12-13).

Elsewhere, the term "perceived" is translated as "knew" or "discerned." Discernment. Spiritual discernment is something Nehemiah cultivated so that even in the face of fear, he could walk by faith in God that allowed him to not just act out of gut fear.

Nehemiah discerned the truth because He knew something the enemy did not--who is really worth fearing. He instructed his workers, "After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes" (Neh. 4:14, my italics).

Here, the word "afraid" is the Hebrew yare. Do not yare the enemy. In this same verse, the word yare is used a second time, yet is interpreted as awesome, an adjective to describe the Lord. In essence, Nehemiah was saying "Do not fear man; have faith in a Lord who is to be feared above man in that He must be honored, respected, and the subject of our awe.

We who love and serve God Almighty need not fear what man can do to us, nor do we need fear God's wrath, either. Yet, even in this, we must remember Yahweh remains a yare God--one who is holy, worthy of our fear and reverence.

Image: Michel D’Anastasio. Hebrew Calligraphy Psalm 23.4 "I will fear no evil..."

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Why Becoming a Bible Scholar Matters

The·ol·o·gy. The study of God. Of faith. Of religion.

Not for you? Don't be so sure.

It's easy to brush aside lack of knowledge about God and Scripture by saying, "Well, I'm not a theologian. Theology and big words like that are for professors. Besides, God doesn't expect me to understand all that hard stuff anyway." Sorry. That couldn't be further from the truth.

For others of us, it's the opposite. We think we're theologians just because we know the lingo, because words like "grace," "holiness," "justification," "regeneration" and "sanctification" roll off the tongue with ease. Yet, if asked to define these terms, we likely couldn't...or even if we could, we've never consulted the Scripture to see if what the pastor or our parents said is actually true.

The terminology is just part of our religious vocabulary, part of being a nominal Christian in America where Christian is more like one's race or gender that we check off on some questionnaire rather than something we choose to live moment by moment.

Whichever camp you fall into, searching the Scriptures is for you. Living off someone else's message from God just isn't enough to satisfy. Worse? Solely living off someone else's message from or about God is dangerous.

It's all about foundation. And a foundation can only be laid by the Word.

When speaking to His Disciples, Christ said, "'Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great'” (Luke 6:46-49).

Even in Jesus' day, He saw the problem with nominal Christianity. And He pointed to the person's foundation as the problem--they spoke the religious lingo but their hearts didn't understand the "words" of Christ.

Here in this space, I generally try to insight into God's Word, sometimes something simple, other times a bit deeper in the hopes that you will dwell on the Word during the week, that the few verses I give will make you crave it yourself, send you hungry to its wafer thin pages.

With the start of this New Year, I have felt drawn to encourage you to dig deep, yourself, to make 2012 a year when you determine that the fundamentals of Christianity are worth your time to firm up in your mind and heart.

If you're presently where I was several years ago, you've been calling yourself a Christian so long that you feel like you've always known everything about God, Christ, and the church. You may have even become numb to the religious language, wonder what the big deal is for others to believe differently if they attend to a moral code and believe in "a" God, too.

It matters. Your foundation. Theology.

Joshua Harris says in Dug Down Deep: Building Your Life on Truths That Last," Theology matters, because if we get it wrong, then our whole life will be wrong...We're either building our lives on the reality of what God is truly like and what he's about, or we're basing our lives on our own imagination and misconceptions. We're all theologians. The question is whether what we know about God is true."

Although Harris' book is not earth shaking in the slightest, its intent is to "tak[e] doctrinal ideas off the high shelf...and put them to work in [our] everyday lives" (25). He attempts to show through Scripture how knowing God's personal attributes is imperative, why Jesus had to be made flesh, why the Cross is necessary for salvation, what is the difference between salvation and self reformation, how holiness isn't just a list of rules to keep unbroken, why fellowship with a church body is important.

Where some authors forget to say why he believes something, Harris litters the text with Scripture references, sending you scampering back to God's Word to check it yourself. It's worth tracking down his book if after reading this, that little nagging voice in the back of your head says you don't have a firm a grasp on the foundational truths as you come across to others as having.

My call for you, for me this upcoming year is nothing groundbreaking. It's simple, for Christians to get back to the basics and quit nit picking over the peripheral issues. I challenge you and me both to make sure our understanding of the basic Christian tenets are Scriptural truths we understand down deep versus mere surface traditions.

I am convinced if each Christian will take the time to build his individual faith's firm foundation, America will see a unity in the church and revival across the land. But first, we must get back to the truth found only in the Word...and understand it firsthand.